On July 24 I went to YMCA’s Camp Copneconic to spend a couple of hours visiting with the folks at Special Friends Camp—a 5-day, 4-night camp for adults (age 18 and older) with cognitive disabilities. What a joyful group! What phenomenal, dedicated volunteers! The campers love being there, and Camp Copneconic loves having Special Friends come back year after year.
Special Friends Camp (SFC) has been taking place for over 33 years, although at first it was called the Michigan District Summer Camp for the Mentally Impaired. The purpose of the camp, from day one, has been three-fold: 1) to share the love of Jesus for this group of people; 2) to provide an experience that participants do not usually encounter the rest of the year; and 3) to give some respite to their caregivers, who often are on duty all day, every day.
George Locke, former Michigan District Superintendent of Schools, tells us a bit about the beginnings of the camp: “The first director of the camp was a lady named Mary Lou. She was a special ed teacher in public education and a Lutheran. She was a real character and related to the campers with much love, but also structure. When she died of cancer, I had to search for a new director. [It was] not easy because of the special qualifications needed. Dennis [Pieper] was teaching at LSEM (Lutheran Special Education Ministries), and I approached him with the offer. What a God send!”
Ironically, continues Locke, “At the same time all this was happening, we lost the camp location because it closed.” Not to be deterred, Locke and Rev. David Winningham, who was part of the district committee overseeing the camp, set out in the middle of winter in search for a new site. Locke says, “I forget how many camps we visited, [but] the Lord led us to Camp Copneconic, which was run by the Flint YMCA. They made room in their schedule for our Special Friends camp,” and that was the beginning of a long, successful partnership. Staff and leaders at Camp Copneconic have told Pieper they love Special Friends Camp so much that they get into arguments as to who is going to get to help them. The Camp’s executive director says that Special Friends helps lift the spirits of the entire staff, making it more bearable to complete the long hours and grind of the summer camp season.
Meet the Director
Dennis Pieper and his entire family have been leading the camp for 26 years—they continued even after the family moved from Michigan to Illinois when he took a call to be a principal. The camp has been a part of the Pieper children’s lives from the very beginning, and has influenced their career choices as well: two of them are special education teachers, one is a therapist for adults with cognitive and emotional disabilities, and one is a physical therapist assistant (PTA) to help people recover from surgeries and physical problems. Pieper comments: “I would not have guessed that my son—who was 6 months old the first year—would now be training to replace me as director, so SFC is in a position to continue into the next generation.”
Meet the Special Friends
The campers are split into three groups: the Foundational Team for people with less mobility/ability, who stay close to the lodging area and do crafts and other activities; the Exceptional Team, for those who can do more; and the Extreme Team, for those who are the most active (they are the ones who go kayaking, playing tag, etc). The group has a large conference/lodging area all to themselves at Camp Copneconic. They have their meals in the main dining hall, at a reserved section next to the hundreds of children from different camps. Lunch time is very loud; dinner is quieter as they eat one hour before the other campers come in.
SFC campers love it there, and many have been coming back for 20-plus years. One of them, Angel, often sends messages to the Michigan District’s Facebook page saying, “Can’t wait for camp!” and “Was the packing list sent?” and “Let’s go to the Exstreame! [sic].”
The camp now serves 40-plus families each year and has a mailing list of about 75 people. Pieper and his team are excited to expand the ministry to Camp Concordia, on the west side of the state. He says, “What an opportunity to spread the love of Jesus to more people and their families. In doing this, we are impacting more families and trying to support Christian churches to create programs for these people and their families year round.”
“However,” says Pieper, “it does also bring up needs that we have.” He elaborates:
First, we ask for your prayers. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the blessings of our heavenly Father.
Second, we ask you to prayerfully consider volunteering as a counselor. We like to keep a 3-to-1 ratio of campers to counselors. Activities are done either as whole group or in teams of 3 or 4 counselors and their campers. If you can put your arm around the shoulders of a person with special needs and tell them “Jesus loves you,” you can do this.
Start with Hello
Third, we need congregations to prayerfully seek the Lord regarding ways they could minister to families who have people of special needs. People with cognitive disabilities are recognized as some of the most loving and joyful people you can meet. They truly live the “faith of the child” that we struggle to attain. Yet, 90% of these children of God go unchurched due to a lack of acceptance and minor accommodations. When I talk to groups they often ask, “But where do we start and how much do we do?” My answer is simple: “Start with Hello.” Invite them to join you for a snack and drink during your fellowship coffee hour—which most churches have. From there, see what doors the Lord opens. Over time, activities become reasons to build and maintain relationships. Please keep in mind that, when you impact the life of a person with special needs, you impact an entire family of caregivers, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and beyond. I would be willing to consult with your leaders and train volunteers to run activities which help build these relationships. Special Friends Camp is a once-a-year event; you can supply a greater connection.
The main need is people, but we could also use audio equipment with amplifier, speakers, microphone, and connections to a computer and CD player. (Many churches are upgrading to digital systems; we are fine with the older, analog systems). Next, we need a projector. We use this equipment during our daily “Jesus Time” lessons, talent show, dance, and closing worship. Lastly, I would ask for financial support in the way of scholarships for our campers. As time goes on, the cost gets greater. The campers are charged nearly $400 for the session. This covers their food, lodging, activity fees, and helps cover the cost of a volunteer counselor. We do not charge the volunteers.
The biggest question is always: Is it worth it? Do you really see an impact? Over the years, parents, caregivers, and group home staff have repeatedly told me that our campers talk about camp all year round, either about the one just completed or the one coming up. They are known to save their money from their jobs, social security, and even birthdays so they can attend.
Treasures in Heaven
The most profound experience I’ve had to show the value of camp came early on. We had a camper who was pretty much non-verbal and many times was having imaginary conversations with TV characters and roles. Then one year we were making a wind sock with the words “My treasure is in heaven.” That year, he took two hours to color the artwork and tears streamed down his face the whole time. Later we found out his mother had passed away and he knew she was in heaven. From that point on he listened and participated in Jesus Time, the songs, and activities as best as he was able. Words like “Jesus” and “friend” became more prominent in his vocabulary, which was improving. Then came the news that he had been in a car accident and had died during surgery. The family thanked us for all we had done and stated they knew he was in heaven along with their mother. I look forward to the day when he and I can sit down together and have a conversation about camp and his friend Jesus.
Please help support Special Friends Camp Ministry. Please prayerfully seek ways you can impact people with special needs—and know they will impact you.
For more information about Special Friends Camp, please contact Gail Milatz at the District Office.
Photos by Elisa Schulz/Michigan District, LCMS