All day Sunday, Mark yelled at everyone he saw, “I have friends.”  Mark is about 16 years old.  He is the son of two prominent advocates for persons with developmental disabilities.  His father has appeared before Congress to advocate for the needs of people who are mentally challenged, especially for those with symptoms of autism spectrum. 

He has been mainstreamed in every part of his life.  For the most part, this has worked well for Mark and for the people who work with him.  However, it seems one thing has been missing for this bright and articulate young man–friends. 

His youth group leader has been involved with Special Gathering, a ministry within the mentally challenged community, for all of her teenage and adult life and she understands Mark.  When she and her husband found out that Mark was coming to Camp Agape, they were thrilled.  Camp Agape is an extension of Special Gathering where seven of our programs come together during Memorial Day weekend for a spiritual retreat.  As the weekend progressed, they became even more excited Mark. 

He is extremely energetic.  Mark literally bounces from place to place with his arms in the air, waving enthusiastically at everything and everyone.  During worship he sat quietly and was appropriate during meal times; but once outside, he is a ball of excited, spontaneous energy. 

“This makes me so happy to see Mark being able to be himself,” his youth group leader said as we rode through the campgrounds in her golf cart.  (Her responsibility is to do hour and half-hour checks of the women at Camp Agape.)  I was hitching a ride with her as we passed Mark bouncing from the lunchroom to his cabin.  “I wonder if this is the first time that Mark has been able to let go and not be told to sit down, stop running and bouncing, and be appropriate,” she said.  Tears formed in both of our eyes.

Of course, there is a need to teach every child what is socially appropriate behavior.  No child should be allowed to go without training.  But imagine never being allowed to let your child be the child he is.  My son was a climber.  If we had any trees growing in our neighborhood, they would’ve been his haven. 

But we lived two blocks from the ocean. All the coconut palms had been killed by a heavy freeze about five years before we moved here.  There were only palm trees that grew straight and tall.  Therefore, he was allowed to climb the walls and the door sills of our house.  He would climb the door entry to the kitchen and hang out as I cooked.  Occasionally, he was allowed to climb on the roof.  I can’t imagine my son not being allowed to climb. 

But for Mark, it wasn’t the bouncing that made him happy.  It was the acceptance.  Mike, John and Eddie became his friends.  Norm, Linda and Sam gave him acceptance and encouragement.  As he rushed to his mother, after getting off the bus, I could hear him.  “Mom, I have friends now.” 

Camp Agape was a success.

What are some ways that you encourage your members to be themselves? Have you seen that friendships are made in your program?