What's the Big Deal About Summer Camp?

This summer has been quite memorable in my family for several reasons. If you follow my articles, you know that we committed to buy an Airstream camping trailer and have gone on a lot of short but memorable trips as we get more comfortable with towing. Our son Christopher has still been in the recovery process from the Chiari (brain) surgery that he experienced back in April; he is happily on the road to a full recovery. Believe it or not, the biggest event for me was my son being able to attend a YMCA summer camp for a week. Luckily, he had his swim coach, who is the Special Olympics coordinator there, be his one on one aide. This was huge for him. He had never attended a typical summer camp before, as he had always been in summer school or therapy most of the time. We had also been unsure if he could successfully navigate that kind of environment. When his coach stepped in and offered to help, we were so grateful to him for helping our son be able to participate and belong.

This experience made me start to think about the whole summer camp thing, and why it was such a big deal that he got to attend. While we always want our children to be included as much as possible, going to summer camp seemed to communicate some kind of a milestone. There could be any number of reasons: relative independence, he gets to attend a day of activities that are not therapy-based, or the interaction with the kids. I was a city kid raised in Chicago, and I can honestly say that my version of summer camp was going to friends’ houses to play, going to parks or riding our bikes downtown.

But there was something else that came to me, and it was the memory of a different kind of summer camp that we all attended as a family for five years straight: the Joni and Friends Family Retreat at Maranatha Conference Center in Michigan. You may be familiar with this camp or attended yourself, so you know what a wonderful blessing it is. If you haven’t, it is a Christian disability retreat in which you are provided with a one on one aide for your special needs child. Parents and typical siblings get to have a week off and enjoy a variety of activities. Because of the rise in the popularity of the retreat, it has become more difficult for us to get approved to go. We also felt it was right to step aside for a few years so new families could have a spot. Yet as I reflected on all of the wonderful memories of those years we had, I was reminded of a conversation with a close friend after the last camp we attended in 2017. That conversation helped me put into perspective why summer camp of any kind was really a big deal, and how even those closest to us “just don’t get it.”


Two years ago, I were caught up with my friend at church. It was June: we were both dealing with the usual end-of-school crazy plus our families. June was also a little crazier for each of us because there were two big events we were both regularly involved with at that time. My friend helped run a week long sports camp for the kids in the community at our church, and I would go off for a week to “Joni Camp,” as our family lovingly referred to the Joni and Friends Family Retreat.

When I had texted my friend a couple of weeks prior to seeing him, he didn’t have much time to connect because he was getting ready for the church camp. I understood; we were getting ready for our family retreat. We caught up after we had both completed our respective “camps.” He very excitedly shared a little bit of the incredible ways God had worked in the lives a lot of the kids who attended. I jumped in to try and relate some of the experiences that we had that year. Although it was our 5th in a row, camp always had many surprises for us in the ways God worked in our lives and others as well.

My friend, though a wonderful soul, has a quick wit and sharp tongue. His response, although not intentionally harmful, was something along the lines of, “All of the relaxation and fun you have is that what gets you so emotional?” I was slightly taken aback. However, knowing my friend the way I do, I knew there was nothing unkind meant by it.

I responded as generally as I could without getting too defensive, and explained that there is a lot that happens with families like mine on a deeply spiritual level, based on the amount of support and fellowship that we experience, some of which we may not get elsewhere. He acknowledged it, but since we were in the lobby of church at the beginning of service, the conversation ended there.

While I wasn’t hurt, I was brought back to the realization that families like mine have all the time. My friend really knows my family and our situation, but he just doesn’t know what family retreat means to us. How could I even begin to explain what really goes on there? I just relegated it to the usual experience of “he doesn’t get it,” but I really wish I could’ve had the “it’s not like that” speech with him.

There’s lots of reasons “it’s not like that,” but where could I have begun? I could have told my friend about the anticipation that my son got when we pulled up to the driveway at the retreat center. My son knew where he was and the greeting he’d get walking in the door. Maybe I could’ve followed up with my friend about the love and support we received for a whole week from our “short term missionary,” who spent the majority of each day with our son, being with him in every sense—every activity, every meal, every worship time, every meal. Everything.

Maybe it was something more unique and special that year. During the annual Talent Show, a female wheelchair user dedicated her song to another wheelchair-using friend who had passed away, and had been a regular at the retreat. Maybe it was the words she used in her dedication, when she lovingly prayed for her friend, saying she couldn’t wait to run with him in heaven. Maybe that’s it.

The next Sunday I saw my friend again, and after chatting, we eventually came back around to our previous conversation about our camp experiences. He apologized for not quite understanding how important it was to us. As I shared a little more with him, his eyes widened. I saw he realized he was mistaken and had not understood our experience. I didn’t expect an apology, just a little understanding that our experience at family retreat is just like life: on the surface it may be smiles and fun, but there are things far deeper and more profound going on, especially those the world may never see.

We may or may not ever make it back to family retreat, but my son will hopefully continue summer camp in some form. Next year, maybe camp will be for more than a week, maybe with less support. Maybe he’ll have even more fun. But camp has become such a profound milestone for our family, since it always reminds me that this is my son’s chance to just BE there, be a kid and be accepted, just like the others. If nothing else, he will have beaten his poor dad’s so called “summer camp” experience by a mile, and yes—his dad will be just fine with that.

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