Special Gathering’s 

Camp Agape 2011


Friday, May 27 to Monday, May 30

For information, contact

Linda G. Howard at lhoward@specialgatherings.com

Richard O. Stimson at rstimson@specialgatherings.com

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.

The adult day program in Angie’s city allows us to meet in their building after their daily activities.  Angie does not speak.  However, when she came to me with a notice repeatedly pointing to Peter’s name, I knew she was reminding me that Peter was on vacation.  Peter’s parents are her ride home from Special Gathering.  She had no note from her family saying that she could stay for Special Gathering and explaining how she would get a ride home.   Her work program staff had brought her to us as they always do.

I went to her staff and asked if she had brought a note from home saying that she could stay.  No.  They assumed that she would be staying per her normal routine without any confirmation from parents.  I told Angie that she could not stay because I didn’t have any information from her mother.  Angie began to wail and cry.  She didn’t need words to communicate her displeasure at not being able to stay for the chapel program.  She was crying and pointing back to the room where we were situated as I ushered her back to her staff.

Honestly, it broke my heart; but her mother could not be reached. I could not keep her without a ride home and parental permission.  Within a few minutes, her van driver came into the room.  “I have Angie’s mother on the phone.  Angie has her permission to stay.  Mother told me this morning that she would be staying.”  After my brief conversation with Mother on the phone, Angie was settled back into her seat awaiting the chapel services to begin.  Her smiles were contagious.

Often, we hear moaning and groans from children, teens and adults about “having to go to church.”  It is such an amazing joy to work with people who wail, moan and cry if the CAN’T attend worship services.  Sure there are some who may be pushed out the door by their parents or caregivers.  Yet, again and again, the Holy Spirit is able to win over these men and women by the love of our volunteers and the Holy Presence of God’s grace evident during our chapel services. 

When is it appropriate to cry?  When you can’t come into the presence of the Lord is a good time to weep, like my friend Angie.

On Saturday preparing for Special Gathering in Vero, I turned my back to set up our sound equipment.  As I reached for the wires, I saw Stan coming through the chapel doors, creeping slowly.  He is 81 and maneuvers with a walker.  I heard but did not see the fall.  A support staff was attending.  She quickly jumped up to help Stan who was now lying on the floor.  Because Stan hit his head, I called 911.  When the EMT’s arrived, they asked me how the fall had happened.  I explained that I didn’t see the fall.  The intense young emergency attendant gasped, “What do you mean, you had your back turned?  You didn’t see what happened?”

The next morning I arrived early as usual to the Special Gathering program.  After we set up our chapel area, I herded the four people I had brought with me into the kitchen because we were providing refreshments for the entire church that hosts our program.  I knew I had plenty of time to set up and get back to the gym after the food was ready.  Unfortunately, I was in the kitchen, four people were dropped off an hour and 15 minutes early and their driver didn’t notify me.  They, of course, headed for the gym, our normal place to gather.  When no one was there, they sat and waited.  These are lower functioning folks, extremely well-behaved.  And they understand waiting. 

While neither incident constituted a lack of supervision on the part of Special Gathering, it did set my mind to thinking about how much safety is enough.  About 15 years ago, when our growth forced us to move from self-contained, small buildings to more fluid, open church facilities, we established a system in which we do visual checks each time we move. 

Our independent people who live in their own apartments have two checks–when they come and when they leave.  The people who are not in an independent living situation but whose parents or other professions ask for “low supervision” during our Retreat Agape and other outings, have three checks–when they arrive, during our Bible study time and when they leave.  Everyone else will receive four checks–when they arrive, when worship begins, when we move to Bible study classes and when they leave.  Occasionally, when a person has proven to be a wanderer or a person who is very physically involved, we will assign a “loose” one-on-one person.  However, we still do the checks on both people.

In addition, we require that a staff or experienced volunteer be in every room where our members congregate.  We believe there is greater safety in groups.  Our supervision method attempts to insure people are safe while attempting to keep their dignity in tack.

I know.  Accidents happen.  Schedules change.  Support staff gets confused about times.  True, you cannot anticipate every contingency.  However, how much supervision is enough?  How much is due diligence?  While I believe Special Gathering has thought through the safety issues attempting to anticipate as many problems as possible, the impossible seems to pop around the corner occasionally.  Each time it happens, I believe it is good to sit and ask ourselves, “What can we do better?  Do we need to make changes? How much supervision is enough?”

Perhaps you have a different arrangment.  What can you add to the discussion?

For the past two weeks, I’ve lived with a spirit of adventure.  I’m excited to have a new kitchen.  Therefore, I’ve shifted my activities and mind into Hurricane Mode.  I decided to make an adventure out of my weeks without some of the modern conveniences that we’ve come to expect to have available at all times.  This Saturday, I lost my stove and water in the kitchen.  I also lost most of the floor space because the new tile flooring was being installed and needed to dry.

I knew I had to prepare lunch for 60 members of Special Gathering for Sunday morning.  (Long story.  You don’t want to know the details.)   The choir was to sing and I was to share with about a thousand people about Special Gathering.  Everything went amazingly well until a fourth of a gallon of pinto beans spilt all over the floor of my car on my way to the church.

Then things went from bad to worse and from worse to much worse.  (Again, long story.  You don’t want the details.)  Suddenly, I no longer wanted any part of the Sunday morning adventure that had invaded my life.  I wanted my car to be clean.  I wanted to represent The Special Gathering to our host church with an anointed message.   I wanted the choir to do well.  Most of all, I wanted to insure that our program was going to run safely. 

I almost shifted into a degree of panic, until the years of Special Gathering training kicked me into automatic drive.  The most important thing was to insure that our members were safe.  Everything else was second gear.  Putting on my supervisor hat, I gathered my clip board and began taking roll.  Within forty minutes, all was right with our program again and I could take off my supervisor hat and put back on my choir director/pastor hat. 

The last thing our members need to see from anyone who leads a special needs program is panic.  That is why I am extremely grateful for the years of methodical training in safety and supervision.  On October 30 and 31, in Melbourne, Florida, we will have our  Annual Treachers’  Retreat.  We will be wrestling with how to effectively lead a worship service within the mentally challenged community.  If you are interesting in attending our retreat, you may contact me at lhoward@specialgatherings.com

Of course, everyone is all for removing people from institutionalized settings.  In the state of Florida I don’t believe there are thousands of people in institutions, unless you are talking about group homes–which are now homes with a maximum of six people living together with staffing.  Pretty sure this would not qualify as an institution.

Is the only alternative is putting mentally challenged persons into an apartment by themselves, where they are isolated and lonely, with minimal staffing, in the worst sections of town?   Then, yes, I believe–from the horror stories I’ve seen first-hand–this is irresponsible social work.

As an alternative, senior citizens have found that living independently when you are weak and vulnerable is a recipe for disaster, even if it is much more cost effective for the State. That is why we now have communities for senior citizens.

Shouldn’t we copy something that is proven to work, rather than doing social experiments on our most vulnerable population? I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be just as cost effective as living independently. People would be able to choose whether they would live there or not and full-time oversight could be provided by pooling State resources.

Many families are beginning to feel that this paridiam would be a win-win for everyone.  What do you think?

When I was a child and teenager and the topic of “what to wear” came up, my mother had an axiom that has served me well during my lifetime.  She would always say, “It’s better to overdress than underdress.  You can always make yourself more casual, if you need to.  The opposite isn’t ever true.”  As strange as it may seem, I’ve found that her philosophy has worked in any number of life issues.  Supervision with mentally challenged people is one of those issues.

Of course, it wasn’t exactly a Special Gathering event.  However, on Friday evening  50 people went to see the stage production of Beauty and the Beast that was presented by St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.  Because I had planned the outing, I was presented with a supervision issue. 

Do I supervise–do my check list–or not?

We met at CiCi’s Pizza for dinner.  Everyone was to provide their own transportation there.  Each person paid for their own meal.  Then we transported people to the play about 5 miles away.  After the play, everyone was to have their own transportation home.  There were walkers and wheelchairs.  There were several sets of parents who attended.  There were about a half-dozen small children.  There were even a couple of single 20-somethings who just wanted to come and enjoy the fun of a live stage play.

Because supervision is the most tricky thing we do, I decided to put to use my mother’s axiom one more time.  I made up a list of people who would be attending with places to check each time we moved.  I included everyone. 

Part of my issue was that I wanted to be sure that I got reimbursed for the 50 tickets, I had purchased at $10 a piece.  The other issue was that I wanted to insure that everyone, including the children, ended up in a car or van headed to the church and on the way home.  (Home Alone WAS NOT my favorite movie.)

After getting to the church, I wanted to have a way to make sure that no one got confused or stuck in the bathroom and ended up in the wrong part of the building.  Therefore, I stood in the aisles with my clip board taking the roll.  After intermission, I got out my clip board again.  One of my 20-something people whispered to me, “I didn’t think this was a Special Gathering event.”  We both laughed. 

After the play, I was like a traffic cop and all the people who came with us were extremely patient.  “Priscilla is taking Shelly.  You can go.  Kenney’s, you can go.  Stafford’s.  Wilborg’s, you take Adam and Loretta…”

Erik confirmed, “I have my group.  I’ll wait by the van.” 

Several of our autistic gentlemen had to be released from the crowd for obvious reasons.  One elderly matron from the church somehow got mixed into our group.  She yelled at me, “What is wrong with you people?  Why are you holding up everyone?  Let me out!” 

I smiled and said, “You are free to go.” 

I marked my list and thanked God for the wonderful miracle of check lists.  Everyone got to the church and got home safely.  And I have my list to prove it.

Have you found that making a list helps or confuses events?  Do your members and parents appreciate or resent the extra precautions?

Working with persons who are mentally challenged there are many things that other ministries don’t have to contend.  One of them is the receipt.  In youth ministry, Mom gives Joey $94 for the ticket to the theme park.  Joey gets his ticket.  The youth director does not need to receipt anyone.  However, in The Special Gathering and every ministry that works with people who are developmentally delayed, the receipt is all important.

Most group homes and even some parents will require a receipt for all purchases.  Therefore, I’ve learned to be prepared.  I’ve made up a simple receipt that says,

I have received from ______________   $__________ for______________.


Here are some other awkward things that we’ve learned over the years at Special Gathering which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community.

  • I keep extra blank receipts in my clipboard. 
  • By the way, I have a clipboard that has an inside compartment for storage.  You can now buy them made specifically for teachers but I purchased mine years ago for construction workers.  It’s been a lifesaver. 
  • Before I take people on a trip, I make up a checklist with everyone’s name.  Then I check them off when they get to the place we will meet, when they get on the van, each time we disembark and get back on the van.  During the day I check each person approximately three or four times.  I try to keep the lower functioning people with me or with a paid staff person.
  • Most important, on these outings we work in concert with the County Recreation Department.  This is their trip–not ours.  This is a wonderful setup because their staff works out the details.  They are the ones responsible.  They assume the liability. 
  • Years ago I had a small group of  parent/volunteers who would go with me.  Then I would divide the people into small groups.  We would all meet at a certain spot during the day.  Then I did my checks.  Now, I try to involve a smaller groups of people who are more independent for these excursion. 
  • There have been times that I advertise this as a trip only for people who are independent.   I let parents and their professional staff  make the determination of their supervision levels.  I don’t attempt to make that call myself. 
  • When someone gets lost, and they do get lost at times, I will stay with the group  or have a staff person stay with them, keeping everyone in one spot.  I usually pick a spot right next to the bathroom.  Then I go to search for the person or send a staff to search. 
  • Of course, before we venture out, prayer is essential.  We pray that everyone will be safe and that God will protect us.  When we get back into the vans to go home, I also bathe the trip with prayer.  While God is our protection and guide, I know that He requires us to be vigilant and cautious.  He doesn’t often bless stupidity. 

What are some tricks you’ve learned in working with people who are developmentally delayed?