Special Friends Camp, a ministry to adults with intellectual disabilities, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. I would like to share a couple stories which help to demonstrate the impact Special Friends Camp has on the participants—campers, if you will. It is my hope that sharing these stories will give people a glimpse into how our campers view themselves, each other, and the world around them.
Every year, on our last night of Special Friends Camp, we hold a dance. We all love it—campers and counselors alike. As one counselor says, “You can dance silly and to your heart’s content and not be laughed at or feel foolish. In fact, sometimes they think you’re cool.” That’s what our campers do as well, dancing as best as they can. This year at our Illinois Special Friends Camp we actually had a live band come to provide the music. It was great. For one camper it was especially uplifting. Katie (name changed) is weak in her left arm and leg but does her best to keep up with everyone else. Katie started moving to the music. Half step with her left leg, full step with the right, rock forward, pick up the left and put it back down, step back with the right, rock back and lift the left leg then back down. That was it, a simple rocking motion stepping and lifting as she could. It’s what happened next that I’ll never forget. A few people came on each side of Katie following her motions. Then others joined in. The song came to an end, but the band leader noticed and asked, “Hey, are you trying to do a line dance?” We said yes, we call it “the Katie.” He called back, “Well, try it with this.” and the band swung into “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” We all made lines, followed Katie, turned left at the chorus, again and again. It became a real dance, and we loved it. Katie had the biggest smile the rest of the night.
You see, when given a chance, our friends can succeed in ways that will surprise you.
Such is the case for Kenny (name changed). Kenny was new to Special Friends Camp last year. At first his father was rather hesitant to even send Kenny. You see, Kenny’s mom had passed away a few years before and since then it was pretty much Kenny and his dad, making their way through life day after day. Friends in their church encourage the dad to try Special Friends Camp since it’s a Christ-centered camp and specifically for people living with disabilities like Kenny’s. There was hardly a day at camp when Kenny did not feel like part of the group and a longtime friend. After camp, Kenny talked about his friends and the things they did. So much so that his dad started to see that Kenny was more capable than he gave him credit for. Every father wants his son to live their best life using all their potential skills and being as independent as possible. During the course of the year, things changed for Kenny. He now lives in an apartment with some friends with similar abilities, and he is in job training and hopes to secure a job this fall.
Once again, when given a chance, our friends can succeed in ways that will surprise you. If you’re lucky, they might even dance with you!
For more information on the Special Friends Camp, go to:
For a recent podcast with Josh Pieper, Special Friends Camp Director, click here.
Before the pandemic, Special Friends Camp averaged around 40 campers per year. When the pandemic hit, we closed for the 2020 year. We came back in 2021 with 20 campers, in 2022 we had 25, and this year we hosted 29 campers. Special Friends Camp is slowly coming back to full strength. Many of our campers have multiple health concerns, some tied to their disability diagnosis and some due to personal health issues. Our goal is to once again serve 40 to 45 campers per year with 15 volunteer staff people. This would bring us to the maximum capacity.
Special Friends Ministries is looking to recruit volunteers and campers. Josh and Dennis Pieper are available to visit and present at your congregation if you are interested.
If you wish to support our ministry and help keep the cost down so more families may participate, you can donate through the Michigan District.
Photos by Elisa Schulz/Michigan District, LCMS