The Big Deal About Summer Camp
John Felageller
August 25, 2020

This summer has been quite memorable in my family for several reasons. If you normally follow my articles, you know that we committed to buying an Airstream camping trailer this year 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, and he is happily on to a full recovery. Still, the biggest event for me believe it or not, was my son being able to attend a YMCA summer camp for a week, and he luckily had his swim coach, who is the Special Olympics coordinator there, be his one on one aide. This was huge since to be quite honest, he had never attended a typical summer camp before, as he had always either been in summer school or therapy most of the summer, and 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 his role in 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, since while we always want our children to be included as much as possible, there is some kind of a milestone that it seem to communicate. There could be any number of reasons, such as the independence (relatively speaking) factor, the idea that 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 over thirty years ago, 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, and that was the Joni and Friends Family Retreat we participated in at Maranatha Conference Center in Michigan. You may be familiar with these or may have actually attended yourself, so you know what a wonderful blessing it is. If you haven’t, it is essentially a Christian disability retreat in which you are provided with a one on one aide for your special needs child, and you as parents (and typical siblings) get to have a week off and enjoy a variety of leisure and activities. Because of the rise in the popularity of the retreat, it had become more difficult for us to get approved to go, and 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 also reminded of a particular conversation I had with a close friend after the last time we attended in 2017. My memory of that conversation helped me to put into perspective why summer camp of any kind was really a big deal after all, and how even those closest to us “just don’t get it.”

I had caught up with my close friend at church who I had been trying to meet with for a little while concerning a personal matter.  It was June and both of us being fathers were caught up in the usual end of school crazy, him dealing with his three and one on the way, me with well, my one special boy. June was also a little crazier for each of us because there were two big events that we were both regularly involved with at this time, my friend helping to 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 our Joni and Friends Family Retreat. 

When I had texted my friend a couple of weeks prior to seeing him, he said he didn’t have much time to connect because he was getting ready for the church camp, to which I replied, yes, we’ll be at our family retreat as well so I understood. When I finally did catch up with him, we had both completed our respective “camps” and 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 then jumped in to try and relate some of the experiences that we had that year, which although being our 5th in a row, always had many surprises for us in the ways God worked in our lives and others as well.  My friend, though a wonderful soul, does have a quick wit, and a sharp tongue. His response, although not intentionally harmful, was something along the lines of: “you mean 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, and he knowing me and my family in the same way, I knew there was nothing truly meant by it. 

I responded as generally as I could without getting too defensive, and basically 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 a realization that families like mine have all the time. My friend doesn’t know my family, he KNOWS my family, knows my son, knows our situation, but he just doesn’t know what family retreat means to us.  After all, how could I even begin to explain what really goes on there, it certainly is a lot more than a five minute check in can explain. I just relegated it to the usual experience of “he doesn’t get it”, while 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” of course, but where could I have begun? I could have told him about the anticipation that my son got when we pulled up the driveway at the retreat center, knowing, after all those years where he was and the greeting he’d get walking in the door. Maybe I could’ve followed up with the love and support we received for a whole week from our “short term missionary” who spent the majority of each day being with our son, and that means being with him in every sense…every activity, every meal, every worship time, every meal. Everything.

All of those things I mentioned are, however, fairly typical for what we experienced there, so in many ways I had become used to such treatment, and so as incredible as all that was, that still didn’t communicate my feelings exactly. Maybe, it was something more unique and special that year, like the annual Talent Show that’s held, and the words of a certain female wheelchair user, who, prior to her performing, dedicated her song to another wheelchair using friend who had passed away, and was a regular at the retreat. Maybe it was the words she used in her dedication, when she lovingly prayed for her friend, saying how she couldn’t wait to run with him in heaven. Maybe that’s it.

The next Sunday I saw my friend again, and we started chatting about a few things, eventually coming back around to our previous conversation about our camp experience, and he apologized for not quite understanding how important it was to us.  I shared a little more with him, and his eyes widened and his attention perked up, it was then I saw he realized he was mistaken. I, of course, 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 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, and next year maybe 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 I think it reminds me always that this is my son’s chance to just BE there, be a kid and be accepted, and smile and play 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 truly be just fine with that.