It’s August again, and I’m preparing for another Joni and Friends Family Retreat, which the Vance family has attended nearly every year since 1999. It’s for families affected by disability. This particular family retreat will be in Minnesota, which has much cooler weather compared to our other retreat experiences in Indiana and Ohio offered by the same organization.
Many families affected by disability attend annual summer retreats-including those run by other nonprofit organizations-to rest and recharge, and often to re-establish long-term relationships with other retreat families. In part, we feel at home at this particular retreat because we fit in. There will be plenty of people there that have gone through similar life situations. The retreat is fully accessible.
Over the years, my role at family retreat has evolved from being part of a retreat family to being a volunteer to helping train the volunteers. In fact, all four of us in the Vance family this year will volunteer, from my wife and son to my 18-year-old daughter, a wheelchair-using college student.
Each volunteer is assigned to a person with a disability. Many families have children affected by autism or cerebral palsy, but quite a few adults come too, including people who are blind or have quadriplegia or a traumatic brain injury.
As one of three trainers, my job is to help acquaint many of the 75 volunteers on how to interact with their assigned family, and to train how to interact with a person using a wheelchair. In addition, due in part to being a Licensed Professional Counselor, I will lead a two-hour session for adults on twelve ways to create more effective family communication patterns and remove barriers to communication.
What I’ve liked best about family retreat is watching the grins of first-time “campers” driving in to the facility on Pelican Lake. The volunteers are waving and shouting hello and overall whooping it up. The volunteers also are there to help the families unload their baggage, which in some cases can take up to a half hour because of all the medical equipment. Friendships are rekindled, hugs exchanged, and stories swapped.
If you know of a family affected by disability that needs a summer getaway, I would encourage you to point them toward the Internet to research any number of organizations that offer such respites. Doing so could make a positive difference in the lives of many people.