“… but God had different plans”
We all know that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and when we listen to His whispers, pay attention to His nudging, and follow His open doors, He will take us on awesome new journeys. Sometimes He leads us to faraway places, new jobs, new people… and sometimes He leads us just down the road to Dayton, Tennessee for a week in July to love, serve, and be on mission at Family Retreat Camp with Joni and Friends.
I am a planner, and this trip was NOT planned… not by me, at least. My family was all set to take off a week of work and life to head back to Nebraska to see our family which we had not seen since November of 2020. We “had it all planned.” Through a series of events that happened in a quick, five-day time frame, the Lord led me through a strange phone call with my mother, a “spontaneous” Joni and Friends volunteering event at Cedar Springs where I watched an amazing camp video, followed by a few questions that led us to saying ‘yes’ to a week in the woods at Joni and Friends camp and ‘no’ to a family vacay to Nebraska. God totally flipped all the plans upside down, wrote us a new 5-day schedule, and off we headed to Family Retreat Camp 2021!
Joni and Friends Family Retreat Camp is designed for families with disabilities to come together in a place that is safe for their kids to enjoy simply “being kids.” It is a time for families to enjoy water slides, swimming, fishing, children’s programming, worship, marriage refreshment, mom/dad refreshment, being with other families going through life with a child/children with special needs, etc. The Joni and Friends staff are an amazing group of people who are so passionate about Christ and making the families experience at camp the best it can possibly be. The staff assigns each camper a “buddy,” typically a high school or college student or another adult who will be with the camper and their family throughout the day. This partnering allows for both fellowship and freedom for the moms and dads of the campers.
We went off to camp very excited and with a “put us anywhere” attitude. The only two things we requested were to be able serve to together and that we would be used to the fullest each day. After that, we had no idea what we would be doing. So, what did we do? Everything! We led the children’s ministry games each day, drove golf carts to take tired campers, moms, and dads from one place to another on campus, we led a night of relay races and field activities for the campers’ siblings, we held up hoola hoops for kids to throw pool noodles through as they pretended they were “javelin throwing,” we put worms on fishing hooks, and we even had our own camper for a day who we fed, transported around campus, worshiped with, and got to encourage/support his parents as they took their wheelchair-bound 6-year-old son down a waterslide for the first time! Goosebumps!
On the last day of camp, the parents stood up to give testimonials of what the week at camp had meant to their family. One dad said, “It was life changing for our family.” He had always known about Joni and Friends but never knew about Family Retreat Camp. He wished more families knew about it because it was so important for family support. One mom wrote a thank you note to her son’s college-age buddy which said, “I kept looking for my son but then remembered he was with you, and I realized that I had not had a break from my son in 7 years. Thank you.” Another mom shared that “people can keep their trips to Disney World, as THIS is our most magical place on earth!”
The Lord led two very ordinary people down a gravel road, to a camp in the woods, to do ordinary things, which He made extraordinary and used in mighty ways for His people.