I just got back from a mission trip to Joni & Friends Family Retreat in Shawnee, Ohio. Our team consisted of 18 people with a mix of high school students and adult leaders. Once there, we joined dozens of other volunteers to help serve people with disabilities and their families.
To start, I’ll just say the week was both incredibly tiring and rewarding. The two can’t be separated. I’ve been on a decent amount of mission trips now and this was probably the most physically and emotionally demanding. Yet, at the same time, I have to say it was also the most impactful. I’m really proud of our team for persevering and showing God’s love all throughout the week even though it was not easy.
The first day and a half was spent training and getting ready for the families to come. The first day, we arrived around three in the afternoon and were going nonstop until around 10 at night. Joni & Friends does a good job of getting new people ready for learning how to serve people affected by all sorts of disabilities. They take you through training stations with knowledgeable leaders who have been doing it for a long time. One of the more helpful (and eye-opening) parts of the training was during our first meal together. Everyone is paired with someone and one person in the pair is “given” a disability they have to “live with” for the duration of the meal. The other person then helped their partner get their food and eat all while trying to do the same themselves. Some examples of the disabilities were blindness, autism (high-functioning and low-functioning), cerebral palsy, and down syndrome.
Moving forward, the second morning we were given our assignments for the week. Many of us were paired with a child or adult with a disability, while others were paired with a “typical” sibling of someone with a disability. Some people had other roles as well, but everyone from our team had one of those two. Once given your assignment, the rest of the week you essentially are to stick with that person at all times. Be their friend, be their helper, be whatever they need you to be. The only exceptions were a two hour break time from 4:30-6:30. The rest of the time, meals included, you were with that person. This is designed so each person has someone who is helping them and loving them, but also so the parents can feel safe to go and relax/do activities without having to watch over their children like they have to do most of their lives.
It was beautiful to see our people (and all the others) jump at the chance to serve one individual with all they have for an entire week. We really had no idea what we were getting into, but from what I saw our team didn’t hesitate to love a stranger like Jesus loves them.
Throughout the week, the camp had many activities and things to do both for the campers and for their families. Each STM (short-term-missionary, that’s what we were called) was told to just do whatever their camper wanted- it wasn’t about us. So, some people swam for literally hours every day. Some people, like me, never swam but sat poolside or walked around most of the day. It really just depended on who your camper was, their age and personality, their disability, and what they wanted to do. It wasn’t about us.
For me, I was paired with a twenty year old who has autism and is nonverbal. Since he is what they call a “runner,” I was one of four people with him and we took shifts running (really, speed-walking) around the lodge throughout the week. He had his routes he would do over and over while he made pit stops at places like the stairs, the elevator, a couch in the dining room so he could watch the kitchen staff work, and his favorite- sitting by the pool. Apparently in other years he swam a lot himself, but this year he never wanted to get in. So, we watched people swim. A lot. To be honest, it was hard figuring out how to love and communicate with a person who can’t speak back. I don’t think I was great at it, but I kept trying and developed so much compassion for this individual. Just by being with him for a week and doing what he likes to do, I learned how he communicates (little noises, hitting your hand away, “laughing,” head movements, etc) and what he likes (lots and lots of bacon, sausage is okay, french fries, fruit snacks). There were times where he didn’t like anything for a meal so he literally just didn’t eat. That was hard on his mom and us STM’s with him.
We got to know his mom a lot, too. I won’t share a lot of that, but a big part of the trip is forming relationships with both the people with disabilities and their families. It’s hard to fathom the difficulties they face on a daily basis but it was beautiful to see the courage, vulnerability, and faith they expressed.
One example of an awesome event during the week was the talent show. People signed up throughout the week, and once the event hit it was an instant success. I think the coolest part of it was how transparent and excited the campers were about getting to participate. So often we (or me, at least) put up walls and fronts and can’t let our guards down. These guys and girls did not have that problem, and were just willing to simply enjoy life in the moment. I seriously learned so much from them. Many tears were shed that night.
I think the hardest part of the trip was leaving. Many of the campers had a really difficult time getting in the car because they felt so loved the whole week. Personally, I felt the same way. Even though it was a tiring week, it was seriously sad saying goodbye. As cliche as it sounds, the place was a taste of heaven.
What I learned
I’m not sure enough time has passed to fully comprehend what God was showing me this week. However, below are some things I’ve seen so far and I don’t want to forget them.
God’s love at its core is expressed through people. Sounds simple, sure. But I believe the reason Joni & Friends is so effective at showing God’s love is because each camper is given an STM for the whole week. It is daunting to look out at the whole world and figure out how we can make a difference at all. Shoot, it was even hard just seeing all the families arrive and thinking “how can we possibly love all these people?” BUT, it was not so incomprehensible to imagine loving one person- your one person. Many of us had a hard time doing so, especially with the campers who couldn’t give much back. Yet still, God’s love was shown and it was shown through His people. The body of Christ’s element was huge, too- and that cannot be discounted. But I saw the brunt force of God’s love being poured out through the individual, close relationships we formed.
You don’t have to know everything. I didn’t know much about my camper’s disability. Sure, I learned some beforehand and picked up things along the way, but I definitely didn’t know even a fraction of the things I could have. But I could still love him by being present and willing to be there with him no matter what that looked like.
Decide ahead of time. I think one of the reasons everyone was so willing and able to love their individual camper was because that was the reason we were there. We decided we wanted to be there ahead of time and therefore were willing to do whatever was needed to “be there” for our person. A big part of being effective in loving others is deciding we are going to be present, willing, and engaged ahead of time. God’s love is active, not passive. It is intentional, not just “go with the flow.”
God’s love is shown through families. A huge portion of the STM’s at the camp were families. Some of these servants had been coming to the same camp, year after year, for over 20 years. I was lucky enough to be paired with a man in his 50’s who had been there almost ten times, and the relationships he had formed there blew me away. He knew these people and cared about them. Not only that, but his wife and two kids were there as well. His dad was there, who he helped lead to Christ. His mom, who passed away this past year, also used to come and was beloved by so many. This got me excited about the potential of Elli and I becoming a family who decides ahead of time that we want our family to be about loving others. That one family impacted so many, and there were countless others who did the same.
There is much else I would like to say, but overall God’s love for people is breathtaking. Having the chance to play a role in that is better than anything else in this world.
Matthew 16:24-25, “Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.