We needed a vacation. Rarely do we take trips as a family. I may take the kids somewhere, but all of us together? Hardly ever happens. Maybe once every few years. But this summer, we made it happen. We just had to make it happen. This past year has been difficult. Many changes, many challenges, many times where we felt like we were falling apart at the seams. But we all came together for vacation. So here’s what we did–and why it matters.
We started our trip by visiting my parents on the coast. The salty ocean breezes were refreshing and invigorating. As soon as we reached the coast, we rolled down the windows, inviting high winds to flow all around the van. Anna was having a blast with all the wind–she laughed hysterically as it blew her hair in all directions! We didn’t “do” a whole lot there. We did a little walking along the boardwalk in Depoe Bay. Looked out over the gorgeous Oregon coast in Boiler Bay. Went to my parents’ church and met a few people. But mostly, we just hung around the house, went for a little walk in the woods behind their house, and chatted about this and that. I wish my parents lived closer (or that we lived closer to them) so my kids could spend more time with them, but we take whatever we can get!
After a couple of nights with my parents, we headed off to the family retreat put on by Joni and Friends. From the moment we set foot in the camp, we were at ease. That doesn’t happen often. We were greeted warmly by the whole group of volunteers, and they made everything about checking in so very easy! We met our WONDERFUL “buddies” (as my daughter calls them)–aka “STMs”, or “Short Term Missionaries”–and set up in the cabin. And then a strange thing happened. The kids went off to explore with their STMs, and we had about an hour to ourselves. We walked, talked, saw some deer… It was incredible. I adore my kids to pieces and love spending time with them, but even people who love each other deeply still need a break sometimes.
The following day, we had some fun with “creative hair day”: Leah had her hair spray-painted pink, Damien got a faux-hawk, and I put my hair up in curlers. I normally wouldn’t go along with little games and events like that, but for some reason, at this particular camp, it just came naturally to participate. The first full day included a lot of getting used to the flow and pattern of the day. After breakfast, we went to an all-family worship service. I smiled when I saw that kids were not only allowed, but even encouraged to come on stage and sing along with the worship leader. They were not expected to sit quietly in their seats, or have a seat at all. Some kids jumped around, some walked up and down the aisles, and some (like Leah) tried their hand at ribbon sticks and tambourines.
Following worship, the kids went to their Program. Little ones went in the nursery; bigger kids went to hear a story, do crafts, and a few other activities; teens and adults with I/DD had their own programs; and adults stayed in the meeting house to hear from the camp pastor. The camp pastor was Brian Sakultarawattn (please don’t ask me to pronounce that last name–I’m still trying to figure it out!). He and his family are incredible people, and we highly enjoyed hearing their story of amazing faith, and had a great time chatting with them over coffee one afternoon. If you’d like to hear their testimony, here is a link to an interview at SD Rock Church.
After we heard from Brian as a couple, the men and women split up into smaller groups. The women each had a group of about 5-6, and we talked about a variety of subjects. We talked about our kids, our marriages, our daily life, our fears, struggles, and victories. I won’t betray the confidentiality of that group, but suffice it to say, we found a lot of common ground, and we were all encouraged and strengthened by being in that group.
We came together again as a family for lunch, and then we split up again in the afternoon. At this point, you may be thinking, “Isn’t this family camp? Why are you spending so much time away from your kids?” As I said before–sometimes people need to be apart from the ones we love in order to reconnect and appreciate each other more. And particularly for special needs parents, time on your own and not being needed is an incredible gift. We love our children fiercely–but there is quite a bit of exhaustion and “touching-out” that goes along with special needs parenting. Taking time away from your children helps to re-energize you, give you perspective, and makes the reunion with your children all the sweeter. And let’s be honest–the kids probably enjoyed the break from us as well! Leah cried almost every evening when she had to say goodnight to her buddy. You’d think going back to the cabin with mom and dad was a punishment for her!
So at 4:00pm, the STMs got their break, and we all took some quiet time in the cabin. Sometimes the kids slept, sometimes they didn’t. But having down time, without “going-going-going” was good for them. After that was dinner, and we were reunited with the STMs. There was a little down time between dinner and the evening worship service. Once again, the kids were encouraged to worship at the front with lots of noise and movement. Each night, we had something a little bit different for our evening get-together. Tuesday was a magician; Wednesday was a talent show (details below). Then we had dessert (!) outside, with a little hanging-out time.
Wednesday afternoon was a “pampering day” with the ladies. Oh, was it wonderful! Pedicures, manicures, massages, foot soaks, haircuts, and clothes! Yes, clothes! They told us before the camp that we would be given two Cabi tops, but when we arrived, they gave us at least a couple of full outfits! What a blessing! The afternoon was over too soon. And what did the men get? Steak. Lots of steak. In the evening, we had the talent show. It was as adorable as it was touching. There were a lot of performers, and each one was given a full round of applause. What’s incredible about a special needs family camp is the understanding that something that wouldn’t be considered a “great talent” for a typical person, suddenly becomes an amazing accomplishment for a person with special needs. And those who performed who did not have special needs were just as enjoyed. Some were silly, some were fun and energetic, and some were inspiring. Everyone had fun at the talent show! And yes, our family–just one of us, actually–did participate. Leah performed a dance with a ribbon stick. She was shy at first, but then she warmed up and did a great job! I’m so proud of her for getting on stage and dancing in front of everyone!
Thursday’s highlight was definitely the square dance. Even Mitch joined in! It took some new friends pulling him into the gym and “forcing” him, but he did it. It was lots of fun! Even after I had to stop when Damien wanted to nurse, I still had a blast watching everyone else dance, and hanging out with our new friends. But at the end of the evening, there was a slight sadness. We knew it was our last night, and we didn’t want it to end. We wanted to just… stay. To live at camp. With our STMs, of course! But we had to leave. To return to real life.
But before we returned to real life, we visited my cousins in Portland. After driving their insane freeway system, Mitch says we’re not moving there. Well, that’s still up for debate, really, but it was not fun. However, while in Portland, we visited the zoo, which was loads of fun for the kids. But mostly, we just spent time with our family. It was just like old times, when we hung out back in San Diego. But now we have kids. Which actually made it more enjoyable in some ways. Watching our kids play and hug each other was heart-warming. It made us wish we were closer to them. But life is what it is right now, and we can’t move everywhere our family is. We can only be in one place at a time.
And then we returned home. To real life. With housework to be done, dinner to be made, school to start, and appointments to attend. Coming back after vacation is hard. Not only is it getting back into the routine of daily life, but it’s having to wait another year before we (hopefully!) see our friends again. It’s going day-to-day on our own (we miss our STMs!). It’s the mountains of laundry still waiting to be caught up on. It’s trying to catch up on sleep. It’s missing our family.
But now we have more to look forward to in the future. We have friends and family with which to reunite. We have that week of relaxing to look forward to. We have the hope of learning, growing, and becoming a stronger family. Year by year, we gain traction. It gets easier. It’s less of a shock–it’s just life.
If you have a loved one with special needs, I urge you to go to this camp. I would also urge family, friends, church members, youth groups, and more–to consider being an STM. It is highly rewarding and will change your life. There will be two (separate) weeks available for camp next year, as the need has grown. With the need for special needs family to have a retreat, there is also the need for more volunteers. And not just STMs, but those who would give of their time to give a massage, cut some hair, bring a therapy animal, offer counseling, or heft some equipment. Volunteer in whatever way you are gifted. I promise, it will be well worth your time to do so.
I’ll close with this year’s verse, Romans 15:13…
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace, as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”