Camp for special needs people stirs hearts of volunteers

by Connie Davis Bushey, posted Thursday, September 14, 2006 (8 years ago)

NEWPORT, Tenn. (BP)--Special Friends Camp draws campers and counselors back year after year because it is an “unusual blessing,” according to counselors and leaders who have attended the camp at Carson Springs Baptist Conference Center in Newport, Tenn.

This year about 250 campers and 75 staff members attended the Special Friends Camp at Carson Springs and a similar one at Linden Valley Baptist Conference Center in Linden, Tenn.

Mark Anderson of Tennessee Baptist Adult Homes in Brentwood oversees the camps, which are for people with physical problems including mental challenges.

The campers return year after year because it helps their families, Anderson said. Each year he meets parents who are leaving a child for the first time, and for many it is stressful to leave a child at camp. But when it is over, they are glad they did, he said.

Campers range from teenagers to people in their 70s, and they come from homes and institutions. Every person who has a disability is allowed to attend if facilities and staff are available, Anderson said. With the exception of a few wheelchair-bound campers, enough staff has always been available to accept all applicants for camp.

Anderson said the campers make the difference because they are so full of happiness and joy. The campers often tell others at camp they love them several times a day, and hugs are very common.

Despite their limitations, campers often surprise their leaders. Some campers have extraordinary gifts for music or memorizing numbers, and many have deep spiritual lives, counselors said. They like to sing Christian songs as they walk together at camp and some sing solos at camp talent events. One young woman who sang a solo sang “straight to Jesus, straight from the heart,” Frankie Beech, a counselor from Stonebrook Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said.

Beech, a high school senior who this summer served his second year as a counselor, said he learned that some of the campers don’t have the best situations with their caretakers. So when he saw those campers smiling he considered himself blessed. Beech said he is glad to “help them make the most out of their life and have fun. It’s amazing.”

Larry Williams, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., has served at the camp for about 15 years along with his wife, Linda. Williams, who once was pastor of Ooltewah Baptist Church in Ooltewah, Tenn., said he and Linda didn’t serve for a couple of years but missed the camp so much they returned even though they had left the state. And they are not the only Georgians to participate -- some campers and counselors from Georgia were a part of the Newport camp this summer.

Joy Schleifer, camp director, has served at the camp in Newport for about 20 years. Schleifer, a member of First Baptist Church in Donelson, also is house manager of the Tennessee Baptist Adult Homes’ Brooks Home in Hermitage for women who have special needs.

She said most leaders of Special Friends Camp develop a passion for the ministry, and she is especially proud of the youth who serve as counselors. They have the opportunity to practice parenthood, Schleifer said, because they are in charge of the campers in their group the entire time at camp.

Anderson thanked Tennessee Baptists for funding the camps through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions which pays for many of the expenses. He reported the camp at Carson Springs has room for more campers so he hopes more will attend next year. The Linden Valley camp is at capacity at 142.

“I wouldn’t take anything for my involvement in Special Friends Camp,” Anderson said, adding that his family also has been blessed by it. His son, Bryan, has served as a counselor for six years and met his fiancé, Lauren Flanders, at the camp. His daughter, Jenni, has served as a counselor for four years. Anderson hopes his youngest child, Kelli, will serve too.