MIDDLETOWN, Md. — Something unique and amazing happened at the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware’s (BCM/D) first “Celebrate Abilities Summer Camp” on July 23-25.
Sponsored in partnership with The Banquet Network (TBN), the three-day camp at Skycroft Conference Center was uniquely designed for people affected by special needs. Campers had the typical camp experience — swimming, campfires, games, the zipline and water slide, art, worship, and Bible study. But for these campers, while they had the option to experience it all (and most did), this was an incredible, new, wonderful experience. They relaxed, bonded, laughed, and had a blast. And they surprised and even shocked their parents and buddies as they moved past their fears and inhibitions to try new, challenging activities.
Parents also got the camp experience, making new friends, sharing laughs, overcoming their own challenges, and just enjoying spending time with others who are part of this largely unreached people group.
“Do you have a child with special needs?” Norma Rodriguez, with a soft smile, quietly asked me as we chatted at the art table. When I told her I didn’t, she said, “You know, it’s a whole other world.” Rodriguez brought her two daughters, Gabriella, who goes by “Gabby,” and Christina.
BCM/D Associate Executive Director Tom Stolle brought his 19-year-old son, Jimmy, on Saturday afternoon during indoor game time. Jimmy is affected by special needs and is non-verbal. Jimmy looked tentative upon entering but quickly acclimated, smiling at his assigned buddy, Blake Davenport.
Davenport, who serves as a coach and a volunteer coordinator with TBN, leads similar camps throughout the country.
While Jimmy bounced a giant black ball with Davenport, another young lady across the room, Anna, the daughter of Bayside Baptist Church Pastor Glen Swanson and his wife, Sherri, was laser-focused on Jenga. For at least 45 minutes, Anna tirelessly concentrated on the game with her buddy, Brianna Childs. Receiving compliments on her ability, she kept her focus as a gradual smile lit up her face.
Other campers played drums in a corner. One enthusiastic camper, Kim Jenkins, kept singing, “Kim likes camp” while beating the drum and adding other verses as she went. Others added their drum rolls to her song. A few also gravitated to a piano in another corner – not on the list of play items, but they enjoyed it.
Thomas Matthews, the son of C. J. Matthews, pastor of Bethany Church, Columbia, and his wife, Katie, who serves as the coaching and programs manager for TBN, played drums with Kim and several others for a short time before switching to a giant “Connect Four” game. Others painted wooden boxes, played ring toss, colored with crayons, or rolled a large ball at giant bowling pins.
As the group prepared to head outside for more adventurous activities, Tom quietly said, “I don’t think Jimmy is going to go down the waterslide.” But Tom was wrong. Not only did Jimmy give it a try, but he also swooshed down multiple times.
“Blake was recording it on video, and it was very interesting,” Tom explained. “When Jimmy hit the bottom of the water slide, Blake would see him laughing hysterically.” Tom was shocked. “That’s not Jimmy!”
Jimmy liked the waterslide so much that he still got happy when anyone referred to it days after camp. “When I mentioned the water slide to people, no matter who it was, Jimmy would start smiling. He totally understood and totally got it,” said Tom.
Most campers were enthused about the zipline and water slide. A few hesitated at the top of the zipline platform and had to get some coaxing from the crowd. Kim stood at the top, yelling to her mom, Jayne, “Mother! Look at me!” and laughing and making funny remarks.
A few campers got to the top and backed out, but everyone clapped at their bravery for at least suiting up and climbing up to the platform.
“It was nice to spend significant time outdoors seeing youth and adults play and have fun together, especially since we have been spending so much time inside,” said Yvette Smith, whose daughter, Naomi, was one of the campers. Yvette, like Tom, was surprised at the adventurous nature of the group. “Most all of the campers challenged themselves and did something new and unfamiliar or even scary.”
Norma was amazed at Gabby’s ability to move past some apprehensions at the campfire. “I was surprised that Gabby lost the fear of fire and actually toasted her marshmallow. She also went and got in line to get her own plate of food and ate at the table. She usually just walks around,” she recounted.
Gabby also bonded more with her sister, Christina, Norma said. It was common to see Gabby and Christina walking together, enjoying each other’s company.
Several moms hesitantly climbed onto the zipline only to enjoy it so much that they got back on. Jayne was laughing and holding on with one hand.
Worship time was also a highlight as campers belted out the songs and made the accompanying motions. Tommy Rowe, the pastor of The Gathering Place in Bowie, served as camp pastor for the weekend. His son, Brian, who is affected by special needs, helped with worship and other activities.
The theme of the camp was Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own understanding; in all your ways know Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
On Saturday, Tommy shared a message on trust. Several campers participated, nodding and interjecting affirmations such as “amen,” “yes,” “no,” and other expressions.
In a relaxed, informal way of interacting, Tommy asked, “Do you trust the chair?” He told them, “Don’t look back, just sit down” (there were lots of giggles from the campers). “Did you trust that the chair was there? Trusting in God is not always easy because you can’t see Him. You have to believe. That’s what faith is.”
Tommy said, “When things get shaky, don’t lean on yourself or your own understanding. You can’t do this by yourself” (“nope!”). “You can try and be a fix-it person like I want to be. Sometimes it can be hard stuff. Someone may be sick. Or maybe you have family issues” (“yes!”), or maybe a friend moved to a different state. You can’t lean on yourself. We can lean on God” (“Thank you, Jesus.”).
Referring to 1 Peter 5:8, Tommy told the group that God says, “Cast all your cares on me because I care about you. Do you know you can do that?” (“yeah!”)
Using a video for music, the group sang, “Lean on Me.” At some points of worship, a few campers danced or did cartwheels.
Jayne said she appreciated the message. “It was a reminder that as we build trust with people by getting to know them, we learn to trust God by getting to know Him,” she explained.
Exhausted and excited from the experience, Margot Painter, the camp director, and wife of Pastor Jimmy Painter of Cresthill Baptist Church in Bowie, said, “Camp was a great success because we had families that trusted us with their children, even if many stayed and volunteered as cabin moms.
“Seeing the campers and their moms try things that they have never done before, like the zipline or the water slide, and seeing the extreme happiness on their faces when they succeeded, was very special to me.”
Allie McCarty, who serves as the Communications & Operations Manager for TBN, reflecting on the weekend, said, “My favorite part of the entire weekend was the drum circle around the fire. Out of the blue, one camper began singing the song ‘Way Maker’ by Leeland, and other voices and drums immediately joined. No drum was in rhythm, no voice was in key, yet it was a beautiful song. It was a moment that still rings in my ears. Even more so, it was a moment where you could feel God’s presence. Though the voices weren’t pleasant-sounding, nor the drums in beat, it was a glorious song of praise to God.”
Adding to that thought, Tom said part of the unique joy is taking joy in watching kids have the camp experience. “From a parental perspective, your kid doesn’t get to do a lot of the stuff other kids do,” he shared. “You dream of your child on the football or basketball team, running track, playing in the school band — but usually this doesn’t happen. You want them to experience what you did as a child, and you feel like your child will never experience that.
“To be in a setting where your kid gets to go to camp — because you didn’t think your kid would go to camp — go down a waterslide and shoot hoops in a pool is an incredible blessing. You resigned yourself as a parent that these things aren’t going to happen, and when they do, there’s this incredible joy, and something awesome happens. And you can be a part of it.”
Sherri Swanson appreciated the acceptance and opportunity provided for Anna. “As the mom of a smart, beautiful, competitive daughter with special needs, it was wonderful to see Anna in her element as she thrived and connected on a level made just for her,” she said. “I cannot express how beautiful it was to see the love of Christ expressed in such a tangible way — each of the campers loved just the way they are.”
Agreeing, Katie Matthews said she was thrilled that her son, Thomas, didn’t feel like an outsider. “He was not ‘the different kid.’ He felt part of the group, included. And he —Thomas as he is — was celebrated. He didn’t have to compromise anything.” Thomas will be having a birthday party soon and plans to invite friends from camp. “It’s going to look like a camp reunion!” she said.
She was also excited to see a pair of twin boys from Bethany Church, Z’aid and Z’ion Black, “shine and excel.” Matthews said, “It was great to see them take scary leaps of faith because they felt like they could; in other environments, that would not have been the case.
“While swimming, they wanted to do the swim test to go to the deep end, and they were encouraged. The care and acceptance gave the boys the confidence to do that.”
Tom said the “massive level of acceptance” was a catalyst to the transformation in the camps. “It’s hard to explain, but it all felt right. Natural. Nobody was looking down at anyone else; there was no judgment. Everyone was just celebrating. It was just special.”
Tom said he’s looking forward to expanding the camp next year.
Sharon Mager serves as a communications specialist with the BCM/D.
Cover photo: Campers enjoy time by the fire (photo by Blake Davenport). TBN provided the below video.