Joni & Friends Family Retreat by Michelle Buffham

Our family was given a gift that will last a lifetime. A gift that we thought was never possible for our family. A gift that gave us memories that will last a lifetime. This gift was the opportunity to do something that most any other family does on a yearly basis. To some it may seem simple or even be a tradition but for us it was an answer to a prayer. We were gifted the experience to attend a Christian camp that caters to families with special needs. Looking in from the outside our children seem to be typical however with them both being on the autism spectrum we have our own obstacles, challenges and issues that made a traditional family camp unattainable.

Being our first year to attend Joni and Friends we went in with wide eyes, open minded and ready for a fun filled week. As we came into camp they announced our family as we drove through a sea of volunteers, staff and counselors cheering for us while singing and dancing to music played by a DJ. At that moment I knew this was going to be an awesome experience. We were greeted with willing volunteers to carry our luggage to our room plus help us get unpacked and settled in. Then we took a tour of the camp grounds and facility to get a lay of the land, meet other families and enjoy cookies, they even had gluten free cookies :-), and soda. Seriously, is there any better way to start a vacation?

The next three days were full of horseback riding, lake activities, hikes, messy games, pool time, slip and slide, hay rides, worship time and so much more. Our children were paired with their very own buddy called a Short Term Missionary (STM), that went with them from activity to activity starting at breakfast to dinner each night. These STM’s are the true definition of their name, missionary, as they pay their own way to camp, attend orientation, training and are at camp to not only serve our child but our entire family. It is extremely humbling to know a person has such a desire to serve others as Jesus taught us with their wonderful acts of kindness especially when most of the families pay for nurses, assistants and support to help care for their children on a daily basis. Furthermore, the STMs allow the parents to connect with each other and other families that can relate to the challenges of having a child with special needs. I can say we made lifelong friends over the weekend.

Joni and Friends creates a spectacular balance between the children having fun activities in addition assuring the parents do as well along with giving precious down time. One evening the parents attended a fancy dinner on sight where all the volunteers and counselors catered to our every need. All the while the children were with their STMs for a night of fun and games. While speaking with some of the other parents this is a rarity for them as they have very little resources that allow them to go out on dates. The mothers were given a spa night however this was not just your typical spa night. We were also give the amazing gift of having our feet and hands washed and prayed over. As we entered the room the chairs were sat in a circle with candle and relaxing music playing. I immediately noticed all the other moms sitting very relaxed with their eyes closed and smiles on their face. We were escorted to a chair to where one of the many volunteers came to your feet and began to wash and massage them. At the same time, another volunteer offered to rub your shoulders and neck, it was a small piece of heaven. I began to melt into my chair feeling relaxed then the volunteer began to pray as she washed my feet, asking God to guide each step of my journey. After that she washed and massaged my hands praying that they would love, protect and care for the precious children God graced our lives with. At that moment tears of gratitude streamed down my face. In all the years of raising my children I have never felt a greater presence of God. and my heart was overwhelmed. To have someone take each foot and hand into their own hands to wash them then pray for each step brought me to the moment when Jesus washed the disciple’s feet. (John 13:4-17) Is this how they felt too? This was spiritually humbling to have someone pray for the guidance of my hands and feet while raising God’s special children.
The highlight of the trip was the talent show on the last night where any and all acts were accepted. It was a moving plus best 3 hours spent with fellow families. To better explain the experience this is my post on Facebook, ” There is nothing more humbling than watching these sweet, precious, gifts from God show their heart and soul on stage before all with courage beyond imaginable. We watched an adult with Down Syndrome with minimal verbal skills sing “I Can Only Imagine”, then a young girl in a wheel chair do a cheer, toddlers with various obstacles perform, “Jesus Loves Me”, a blind young man and his buddy sing, “Jesus Take the Wheel” and so many more. There was so much talent that I cannot tell you all of them but know for each one of these parents this was their child’s touchdown, goal scoring win, first place prize, A+ on a test, college acceptance letter and so many other things. This was *their* moment to shine, take 100s of photos for Facebook and chance to brag about, “Guess what my child did tonight?!?” My eyes feel with tears and my spirit is full by this. The scripture for the entire camp this week has been Matthew 19:26 and Lord do I believe it more now than ever!! Amen. Matthew 19:26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The gift we received was truly a gift because we did learn and now know that “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

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