camp agapeDon’t miss

Retreat and Camp Agape

a Christian retreat experience for the mentally challenged community

Memorial Day Weekend–Friday, May 23 to Monday, May 26

at Life for Youth Campgrounds

Vero Beach, FL

The cost depends of the functioning life style of the person attending and ranges from $190 to $240.  We will provide transportation from Brevard County from four pick up points.  To request an application, call Linda Howard at 321-773-2691 or email at  Or you may leave a comment.  You will be directed to the correct person with whom you need to speak.

If you would like to attend, act quickly.  The available spaces are filling up quickly.

Prayer is such a great mystery and marvel in the life of Christians.  It is fascinating how the Lord answers prayer.  Yet, when prayer is answered suddenly and completely, I can’t help but wonder, does the Lord have us ask for things that are about to happen?

Several years ago we had the honor to have a couple from Wisconsin who are in disability ministry visiting our home.  I love having guests.  In fact, years ago we built a large second story room that was to have two purposes.  It was a meeting place but also a place to house visitors.  After a few years, the meetings that were being held in our home slowly dissolved.   But we continue to use the room for guests.

Mostly, it is for teenagers who seem to wander in and out of our lives.  Teenagers are some of my favorite people.  Face it, if they aren’t your responsibility,  they are exhilarating folks to have around.  Because every teen occasionally needs a place to hang out for a day or two, our home is spacious and pretty convenient.

Last week, we had a visit from members of our family.  But today as I was preparing the house for our next visitors, I prayed, “Lord, I would love to have someone else to stay in our home soon.”  I reminded the Lord that we had built this room as a “prophet’s chamber.”  It would be nice to have someone in ministry come who needed a room.

A couple of hours later, we got a call from Tony and Jo Piantine.  We met years ago at a disability conference.  Their younger son, Dan, had a severe disability that meant that he was required to spend many hours each day in a portable machine that helped him breathe.  Dan died when he was 21 or 22 about 15 years ago.  Since that time, their other son, Tony, Jr. has headed a ministry which has built a camp for persons with disabilities in Wisconsin–Camp Daniel.  Their website is

Jo and Tony, Sr.  are an important part of the ministry.  They were in Florida resting before summer hit again.  As soon as Jo identified herself, I knew God had heard and answered my prayer.  Of course, I invited them to stay with us and they accepted our invitation.

Again, the dilemma of prayer, did the Lord remind me of the original purpose of our upper room because they were coming or did he answer my spontaneous prayer?  Either way, can you imagine having a God so intimately involved in our lives that he works things out in minute details?

In Deuteronomy 5 from The Message, I read this morning, “What other great nation has gods that are intimate with them the way God, our God, is with us, always ready to listen to us?”  Sure, there are times that we pray and wait and listen for years for a deep yearning that can only be expressed in prayer.  But aren’t we all grateful for the special times that we pray and two hours later, the phone rings and our prayer is answered.

Have you had a time recently when God answered a prayer immediately?  What is the prayer you have been praying for years that seems to be left unheard and unanswered?  Do the times that God answers immediately encourage you that God hears but his timing is different?

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!

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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:

2011 Florida Summer


Monday, May 16 to Friday, May 20, 2011

at Lake Aurora inLake Wales

Cost is $545

for information, contact

Rev. Joe Trementozzi


This is Special Touch Get-Away sponsored retreat/vacation for people who are developmentally disabled.  To see information about Get-Aways closer to your area, see the Get-Away webpage to see when and where all of these retreat are being held.

Special Gathering’s 

Camp Agape 2011


Friday, May 27 to Monday, May 30

For information, contact

Linda G. Howard at

Richard O. Stimson at

Costs are from $160 to $230, depending on level of supervision.

Retreat/Camp Agape is a held at Life for Youth Camp in Vero Beach, Florida

1462 82nd Avenue

Activities for the weekend include chapel twice a day, paddle boat, speed boat, pontoon boat, go-carts, putt-putt golf, basketball, crafts, game room, water slide, swimming and snack bar.

All cabins are air-conditioned.  Chapel attendance is required.  Registered nurse on the camp grounds and on-duty 24-hours a day.  All med administered by nurse for Camp Agape attendees.  People attending Retreat Agape must be able to administer their own meds. 

To volunteer, you must have a reference letter from your pastor and attend our training seminar.

There is so much to write about the Camp Agape.  However, the last thing that happened sticks in my mind.  I’d like your response regarding the wisdom of my decision.

We transport most of our campers from Vero Beach back to Melbourne (or Cocoa, Titusville, DeLand, Daytona and Jacksonville).  We meet parents and support staff at a church that is centrally located.  While things happen each year that make us a few minutes late, parents, of course, understand and most support staff also do.  However, there always seem to be a few support staff that get irritated at us because of something that happens. 

Our members were told to stay on the bus until I released them because I’ve learned over the years that I need to keep a handle on who gets off the bus so that members aren’t left behind or taken by people who aren’t the responsbile person.  These restrictions may seem unrealistic.  However, my first year of being the primary responsible people after camp, Suzanne, a helpful and concerned parent decided on her own to take her son’s good friend home with her because she didn’t see the other parent.  Unfortunately, Mark, the other parent came a few minutes late.  He didn’t even know Suzanne or her address.  He was most upset that his son was taken away.  Of course, I was able to get his son home safely within a few minutes.  Yet, this was a good lesson learned.   

After preparation for weeks and four days of camp, I am sometimes less than patient with folks who are paid to pick up people from the bus.  Therefore, when one support person pushed her way to the front of the line to get medications, I found her interesting.  “Give me Mel’s meds.” 

“Mel has no meds.  He was a retreat person and he administered his own meds.”

“Fine.  I’m getting him off the bus and taking him.”

“No, maam, I’ll get him off the bus.”

“I said that I’m taking him.”

“I have his permission for him to stay on the bus until I release him.  No.  You aren’t taking him. He is my responsiblity until I release him.”

“I have people on vacation at my house getting ready to leave and I MUST leave NOW.”

“I’m sorry but you can’t have him yet.  When I give everyone their meds, then I’ll get him off the bus.”  Handing out meds has also been an interesting process.  In past years, I would get people off the bus and then give out the meds.  But someone always would leave the meds with me and I had to take the medication to the person’s home.  Again, parents seem to understand and even appreciate the process.  Yet, this support staff person was pretty huffy by this time.

After meds were handed out, I let Mel off the bus first.  He was quickly whisked away without a thank you or good-bye. 

At the time of camp with 40 people on a bus and parents waiting, I have no time to explain our processes.  Nevertheless, I also understand that I must have a working relationship with support staff because of the tremendous influence they can have over our members.  Yet, support staff is not my primary focus when there is a question about safety. 

What do you think?  Who was out of line, me or support staff?

“This is a sub-culture!”  the Family-Life Pastor, Milton Mazariogos, from Zion Christian Church in Palm Bay said to me.  “I had no idea that there are so many different kinds of disabilities, just within the mentally challenged community.” 

This is usually the reaction of an outsider who attends our weekly Special Gathering program, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  However, when there are 200 people gathered from Jacksonville to Port St. Lucie, you receive a substantially harder jolt of reality regarding the disabilities community. 

Pastor Milton had come to take care of one of our campers.  He and Mark had a wonderful time playing and laughing.  But the work was hard.  The pastor spared no energy, lifting and pushing from Friday afternoon to Monday morning. 

Mark and I are deeply grateful for his labor.  Once again my mind zoomed to a familiar place–educating the church to the the great spiritual need of mentally challenged people.  We bring our choir into churches but many of the people think we are only a choir.  We sometimes have people come to our program but they often think that we draw our members from a large institution somewhere in La La Land. 

Even though Camp Agape is only a small portion of what we do, it gives a great overview of the population that we serve.  Christie makes her bed and puts her teddy bear on top of the pillow.  Helen became the “unofficial” counselor for some of our younger women who were having boyfriend problems.  Eric came to camp to be a one-on-one attendant for Chris.  LeeAnne took it on herself to oversee the activities of Laura, who is an extremely capable young woman but exceptionally shy. 

Each person has a distinctive personality and their disability effects them in multiple different ways.  Yet, there is a common thread that binds them with all humankind.  They need a Savior.  Leading them to Jesus’ love is the easiest thing we do.  With the rejection and misunderstanding they have endured most of their lives, they leap at a forgiving and loving God who accepts us just as we are. 

Each of us are incomplete without the love of God.  Unlike many normal people, the mentally challenged community–by and large–understand that deficit.  During our Sunday evening chapel several people prayed for salvation. 

Would you commit to pray for them and for their faith journey?

At least, I don’t sleep during my own sermons.

Linday Howard Sleeping

Linda Howard Sleeping

Better angle but still sleeping

Better angle but still sleeping

Okay, I wouldn’t call what I’m feeling after camp a glow.  Perhaps a slow seep.  Tired isn’t the word for what I’m feeling.  Yet, after coming home there was still a lot of work to do.  Last year I learned to put away all my supplies and equipment as soon as I get home.  That means cleaning, organizing and reorganizing.  However,  next year, most of the work will be done in preparing the small things that are needed for camp. 

  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • rubber gloves
  • spray containers for bleach water
  • sleeves for the cabin numbers
  • magic markers/writing pens
  • tacks
  • walkie-talkies, with the batteries removed
  • batteries
  • paper towels
  • medication containers for each person attending who takes meds
  • Baggage labels (obtained from the Grayhound Bus Station)
  • 5 gallon water jugs

Because we don’t do our own cooking, we don’t have to deal with food prep.  Therefore, we are able to keep down the things we must bring to camp. 

For the past 25 years we have rented a wonderful camp ground called Life for Youth Camp in Vero Beach.  They have boat rides, go-carts, putt-putt golf, game room, canteen, gift shop, super slide, swimming.  Robbie and Sherry Stevens have blessed us all these years.

First, if at all possible, DON’T do it.  However, if God has called you to minister within the mentally challenged community then you probably have no choice.  Then you should understand that it’s impossible unless you are surrounded by lots and lots of Hurs. 

You remember the story taken from Exodus.  Moses was to hold his arms in air as the children of Israel fought the enemy.  However, when he became so tired that he could no longer hold up his arms, Hur held them up for him. 

This Friday, as camp began I was surrounded by 24 amazing Hurs.  They toated and fetched and carried and struggled, pushed and pulled from 8:00 in the morning until about midnight.  Slowly they wandered into the top of a hard bunk bed and slept for five or six hours only to get up and do it again the next day.

How do you thank people who are more gracious than you could ever imagine?  Can you ever show enough appreciation for people who give until there is nothing to give and then give some more? 

Of course, not.  Only God can reward and thank them properly.

Before I became involved with the mentally challenged community, I had two ideas about camp.  First, this was something that children and teenagers did in the summer or during winter or spring break.  Adults went on retreats but they didn’t go to camp.  Second, some adults (who haven’t discovered the Ramada)  go camping, which means a tent, sleeping bag, a propane stove or a campfire and an inflatible mattress.

One of my first introductions to the special needs community was being invited to go to camp for a four-day weekend.  That seemed a bit bizarre to me.  I had met most of the members of the program that was involved and I knew that they were all adults.  My children went to camp.  As adults, we went on retreats.  Soon, I found that there is a entire national network of camps for people with disabilities.  These camps are populated with people who are mostly 21 years old and older. 

I have a confession.  This is my 20th camp and I still bristle when we speak about camp for our members, who are adults.  It seems so junior high to me.  I was thrilled when Special Gathering changed a portion of our name from Camp Agape to Retreat Agape.  The camp side is for people who need more supervision and more care.  The retreat side is for people who live in their own apartments or homes and are higher functioning.  They receive minimal supervision and no care.  Special Touch, founded by Charlie and Debbie Chivers, still use the term camp loosely but they officially call their annual “camping -type experiences” Get-Aways.

 I personally believe that we could all come up with a more appropriate name for what we all do, than camp.  However, no one else (except the Chiver’s)  seems to be bothered by the term.  Or maybe everyone dislikes the term but no one has seen the need to balk.  As we all recognize, blogs are the forum for spitting and balking.  Everyone does it on the internet, from left wing bigots to right wing bigots. 

What do you think?  Is the term camp outdated, or worse, inappropriate for adults?  What would you prefer to call this national phenonenom in which most of our adults members participate?  Retreat?  Get-Aways?

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