Camp Agape


Some say he could be one of the wealthiest men in the county.  His mother died about 10 years ago.  He has a beautiful home and a new car.  He has plenty of money.  There are two bankers and two lawyers who take care of his financial, investment and legal needs.  Unfortunately, his caregivers are not consistent and change frequently.  Fred is a 64 year old man who is in great health; and he is a part of the mentally challenged community.

Recently, we did a survey of sort with our members of Special Gathering.  We were at Camp Agape which is our annual spiritual retreat for persons who are developmentally delayed or intellectually disabled.  We had drawn a circular target on a piece of paper.  It’s the same kind of target used for darts.  There’s a small circle inside a larger circle, inside a larger circle.

We asked our members to put their best friends and closest family in the bull’s eye or smallest circle.  Then close friends and other members of their family in the other circle.  The final and largest circle would contain the people who work with them and they know in an informal way.  Perhaps people who are especially nice to them but may or may not be their friends.

Fred’s entire target contained two names.  They were in the bull’s eye.  Fred had written the name of one other member of Special Gathering and my name, Linda Howard.  When I saw his target, I cried.  My tears were from sadness and joy.

Of course, I was sad that this fine man.  How lonely it must be to feel that you have only two people on which you can depend.  I was struck that no amount of money can buy friends and loved ones.  And perhaps, his money and lawyers and bankers have insulated him from not only hurt but also genuine friendships.

But mostly, I cried that I have the honor to be a part of Fred’s life.  In the twenty years we have been friends, I have seen Fred grow spiritually and emotionally.

I had known Fred for more than five years before I saw any emotion from him.  He often laughs now and his smiles are frequent.  Fred will never be an overtly affectionate individual; but these days he usually will give me a sideways hug after our choir sings.  If he has a solo,  his grin is from ear to ear.  In the past four or five years,  while driving him around in the van for Special Gathering events,  I can hear him giggle.

We all reach from the dark to find hope, joy and satisfaction in life.  Being a part of the mentally challenged community does not erase the desire for love and acceptance.  I praise God that I’m a part of The Special Gathering and that God gives us the opportunity to reach out and find finger tips of hands that are also reaching.  Perhaps with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, I can even touch and be a significant part of a important life–a person for whom Jesus gave everything.

Is there someone that you have touched in a significant way?  Have you seen your members ministering to each other.  How have they been able to do that?

Camp Agape is a four day retreat that allows all of us to get into the skin of our members and for our members to get to know us and each other.  On Sunday evening at Camp Agape, we have a bread and cup service.

Each year, the members of several programs of Special Gathering gather for a spiritual retreat in Vero Beach at Life for Youth Camp during a four-day weekend.  Each year there are 200 to 220 people who attend coming from seven of our programs.  People come from as far south as Port St. Lucie, Florida and as far north as Jacksonville.

A ministry within the mentally challenged community, Special Gathering exists to do classic ministry, discipleship and evangelism.  This is our purpose and mission.  During Camp Agape, we eat our meals together.  We sleep in the same cabins.  We play games, do crafts and slide down the water slides.  Twice a day we have chapel services.  The highlight of the weekend is the bread and cup service.  Here, we remember the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.  We also want to embrace the time of fellowship that this meal represents.

We serve the bread wafers and the small cups of grape juice in two lines. Each person was given the invitation, “If you are a friend of Jesus, come.”  During the mingling in the aisles as people wait for their turns, there is a stirring of the love the Lord has shown for us by the fact that he would come to die for the bad things we do.

When The Twins (two young women in their early 20′s) came to me to be served, I realized that this was the first time, they would be served the wafer and the cup.  I gave the bread to Ariel with the explanation, “This is a small piece of bread.  Take and eat it.  Jesus said that we are to do this to remember that his body was broken for us.”  I explained the cup in a similar way.  Ariel solemnly took the wafer and small cup.  She ate and drank the elements.

Then it was Clara’s turn.  She is blind and in a wheelchair.  I placed the wafer in her hand and explained.  “This is a small piece of bread.  Jesus said that we are to eat the bread to remember that his body was broken for us.”

Clara felt the bread with her other hand.  “Jesus said that?  Wow!” she exclaimed quietly.  Somehow her simple exclamation did something new in my spirit.  The wonder of his sacrifice was magnified as I encountered anew the privilege his sacrifice affords us, giving us access to the Father.  My heart exploded with joy.

I gave Clara the cup and my feeble explanation.  Again, Clara took the cup and said, ”Wow!  This is for me?  Wow!”  By now I was weeping.  How can a simple “Wow” renew and even transform my understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice?  I have no idea. But I was acutely aware that access to the heartbeat of God is mine.  What more can be said but Wow?

As Clara’s simple exclamation made my heart sing, how has God opened your eyes to spiritual truths by the actions or reactions of others who honor and worship the Lord?

Sense of Humor? Get one

There may be nothing that is as potent in leadership than a sense of humor, especially when you allow yourself to become the joke.

I’ve watched gifted leaders turn some of their greatest blunders into a time of learning for everyone.   Here are some helpful hints that I’ve gleaned from these men and women.

  1. Taking yourself too seriously is deadly for a leader.
  2. Begin to examine your attitudes and actions with a critical eye which searches for what others may find humorous.
  3. Dispel anger by openly letting others know that you get the joke.
  4. Allow your co-workers and volunteers to become part of this humorous experience.
  5. Don’t ever laugh at the person who may criticize you.  But actively laugh at yourself when criticism is leveled at you.

Each year, Special Gathering takes 200 or more people on a retreat.  We are responsible for the safety and health of our members who are mentally challenged.  Most of them have an additional, secondary physical disability.  Tensions run high during the times we are transporting these people and setting up the retreat.

About five years ago, our executive director began to break down some of the tension by laughing at himself.  Those of us in leadership positions took up his banner by finding humor in our mistakes and stern attitude.  Our most valued volunteers and staff pushed the theme.  It has changed the sternness of this tense time into a much more relaxed atmosphere for everyone.

Finding the things at which others can laugh enhances–rather than diminishes–your leadership skills. If you don’t have a sense of humor, get one.

Photo by LadyBugPhotography
Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/simplelife/2011/06/leadership-sense-of-humor-get-one.html#ixzz1Pv3QGftr

While others were enjoying the ocean, I crawled on a picnic table and lapsed into my “after-camp coma.”

What do 200 people with special needs, their pastor, area directors and volunteers do after a four-day weekend at a rustic retreat?  There is only one option–collapse.  Thanks to Ladybug Photography, here are few of the pictorial highlights of our week at Life for Youth Camp in Vero Beach, Florida.  This year our participants ranged from the age of 18 months to 80.  Our theme was “I Am Somebody Because God Loves Me.”  So many of our volunteers brought their children that we had to provide a children’s cabin.  We had Vacation Bible School for the 13 children.

Smiles all around.  Everyone is happy to be back at Retreat/Camp Agape.  It’s a family reunion.

Brian and Julie are ready for their special time together.

The Chicken Walk?
More chickens? Or Elvis? Either way, loads of fun.
Is this a chicken or Tim?
Rev. Richard Stimson, Special Gathering Executive Director. He is not mean. He is only focused.
Together worshiping the Lord
While I’m not a craft person, EVERYONE else is.
Their mothers came to Camp Agape when they were their children's age.  Now their moms are volunteers.Their mothers came to Camp Agape when they were this age. Now the moms are volunteers.
Tarah shadowed Matt during Camp AgapeMy niece, Tarah, had the privilege of shadowing Matthew.

Thanks to LadyBug Photography by Tarah Risher for the great pictures.

Special Heart

The Autistic Child and Discipline

Although I have had two children with special needs, and although one of them had some autistic tendencies, I have never raised a child diagnosed with autism.  But I have observed from afar what the parents of such a child are faced with, and it is often a daunting task to raise, nurture, and seek to have this child’s gifts be appreciated by the rest of society.

And to make matters even more difficult, it’s hard to discern how to correct, discipline, and establish boundaries for the autistic child, knowing that he or she is “wired” a little differently from most kids.  What is fair?  What is effective?  Is there a different standard for children who are on the autism spectrum?

There are many sides to these questions.  Let me offer first the side of compassion:  When I was very, very ill with an autoimmune condition several years ago, there were symptoms that were amazingly similar to those experienced by many autistic children–severe food sensitivities and allergies, environmental sensitivities, intolerance of man-made fabrics, of florescent lights, and a hyper response to strong smells and loud sounds.  As a result, I can somewhat relate to and definitely sympathize with the child who endures these disturbing sensations.  I could hardly handle it as an adult.  I really do feel for any child who struggles in this way.

At the peak of my illness, God directed me to a kind doctor who said, “You are very fragile, like a piece of fine china or crystal. We need to treat you with this in mind.” How relieved I felt that he saw me in this way rather than as a person with imaginary problems! Thankfully, since then, my hyper-responses have calmed.

Looking back at my experience, my doctor’s words can be advice to parents of the autistic child:  to treat him or her as a piece of fine china.  Don’t be afraid to parent and guide with boundaries, accountability, and the kind of structure that all kids need.  But do it all with an extra dose of care and gentleness.

So that is one side.  The other side is two-fold and has to do with discipline.  First, God’s standards, commands, promises, and blessings apply to all children. For example, God says,

“Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.

Honor your father and your mother (which is the first commandment with a promise) so that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.”  Ephesians 6:1 NASB

Notice that God’s intention for having standards for children is so that “it may be well” with them. They may even live longer, according to this verse!  So God’s commands do apply to the autistic child, although getting to the goal of obedience and a sense of “otherness” will without a doubt be a longer and harder road than for the more typical child.

The other factor in disciplining the child on “the spectrum” is that although she may not know intuitively how people around her are responding to her behavior, she can be taught and can learn through rules, or you might call them “guidelines.”

Temple Grandin, in her book, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, emphasizes that although as an autistic child, she had trouble understanding appropriate social behavior, she did benefit from consistent expectations and consequences.

When I was a young child, everything pretty much got me equally upset.  My thinking patterns were more rigid, more black and white than shades of gray.  I was fortunate that  our home life was structured and Mother and the nanny were consistent in their expectations of me and the consequences they attached to my behaviors.  That sameness was calming to some degree, it allowed me to experience a sense of order and control.

Throughout the book, Temple describes that she had to learn things, particularly things that were social in nature, that other kids might know intuitively.  However, she did learn, as she describes it, like putting data on a hard drive on a computer.  But it did take time.

Sean Barron, Temple’s coauthor who, like Temple, demonstrated “classic autism” at a very early age, writes this about manners and how he had to learn about being others-aware:

The rule of displaying good manners extends beyond please and thank you.  It’s not enough to make good eye contact and be sure the shirt is tucked in. Good manners also incorporate  inclusive conversation. 

Realize that Sean was quite language delayed when he was young, so any conversation was hard for him!  But he eventually learned  to say things like “Well, I’ve talked enough about myself.  I’d like to learn more about you.”

All of this progress was slow in coming, but the end result was that Temple and Sean are now able to bless others with the gifts they possess, and able to enjoy the satisfaction of being a very positive contribution to the society in which they live.

I’ve noticed that parents of kids with autism are often able to see beyond their “condition” to the giftedness that is within them.  A combination of compassion and discipline, will help to draw out that treasure that is assuredly there for all to see and experience.  I encourage you to not give up.  Your child has so much to offer, and your labor of love will eventually be a blessing to you, to your child, and to the many others who benefit from getting to know him!

Bev Linder

Comments or questions?  I’d love to hear from you!

Bev@special-heart.com

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Memorial Day is the last day of The Special Gathering’s annual camping experience called Camp Agape. Each year we take more than 200 people to a camp ground for four-days of fun and fellowship.  We return Memorial Day and those of us who have served as staff are totally and completely exhausted.  Our members are mentally challenged and most of them have a secondary physical disability.  As uplifting as this adventure into our cloistered sub-culture may be, it is also filled with mental stress and bodily exertion.

As a result for the last 24 years, Memorial Day has been a day observed but not a day of remembering.  Nevertheless, as the years of war have grown into almost a decade, I am more deeply aware of what these young men and women have given to us.  My heart is moved remembering the sacrifice of our youngest and best adults.

I am blessed to be old enough to remember the Korean War and the resolves made after World War II.  Again and again, we were told by our elders, “We must never again let tyranny and oppression threaten the world with destruction.”  It is the result of the horrible lessons learned during war that we weep at the horrors of battle but continue to send our young adults marching into the face of the unknown.

We pray for peace in the world.  However, we remember the history of the world.  Therefore, we are eternally grateful for the freedom we enjoy.  I always thank God when I read the slogan of a bumper sticker of a rusty and battered truck, “Freedom is not free.”

Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/simplelife/?p=625#ixzz1NMobbFU3

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