Kelli was my roommate in college when we were both homesick 18 year olds. She’s one of the funniest, most confident people I have ever met, and she has a big heart for people! Kelli works as the Registrar at Camp Barnabas, a summer camp for individuals with special needs. It has been her dream to educate others on the importance of making room in the Church for those with special needs. She has so many great stories about how God works in the lives of the campers. Sadly, society counts those with special needs out and ignores their potential to connect to God. Below, she shares more about what God is doing at camp and how he reaches out to even the seemingly “unlikely” among us.

Camp Barnabas is a unique ministry providing Christian camping experiences to people with special needs. Everyone here seeks to promote a sense of normalcy in the lives of children living with a disease or disability. Using our camp venue, Barnabas provides ministry and social experiences that increases spiritual knowledge and increases human dignity to all who participate in the program. Once an individual feels loved and accepted they are more willing to hear about the love God has for them. Each day of camp we cover a specific devotion with all of our campers. This devotion is presented in many ways in hopes that our campers will never forget the message. We start off each morning with an introduction to the message and after breakfast everyone goes back to their cabin to dive a bit deeper into God’s word. At each camp activity the volunteers talk to their campers about God and how the activity can teach us something about Him. In the evening before the campers are sent to bed we join up again as a large group to sing a few worship songs.

Often individuals with disabilities are cast off to the side in church, because people do not think they are able to maintain a deep and meaningful relationship with God. If they are able to stay at a church they are often given shallow information and are never truly pushed to go after something more meaningful. Because of that many of our campers and their families do not have a home church. Some parents are afraid or unable to leave their child with church volunteers because they are not equipped to care for someone who has a disability. Some diagnoses are linked to severe behavioral issues, and even in today’s society the church will turn away individuals with behavioral problems feeling that they are nothing more than a disruption. Because of this many of our campers do not have a personal relationship with God.

Our wonderful campers with special needs get to experience camp just as any typical camper would through the adaptation of activities and the one on one support of our volunteers.These incredible volunteers are placed with a camper to unconditionally love and accept them, care for all of their camper’s needs, and assist their camper in having the most awesome week of summer camp ever. Kids with disabilities are able to go to camp each year and not have any judgements or strange looks for an entire week. They are uninhibited and they get to be kids.

Watching our campers worship God is the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed. They approach God with the childlike innocence Jesus calls us all to have. Their concern is not with their appearance or how they sound but with giving God the honor that He is due. If Barnabas did not foster a loving environment for our campers where they are accepted no matter what their abilities are, I think we would not be able to witness the formation of these relationships with God. 

Volunteers come to Camp Barnabas to serve these people who have been mistreated and placed on the outside of society. Individuals like our camper Mason. Mason has had a rough year, he lost his little brother last summer and Mason regressed. He regressed so badly that his school put him in a 6 by 6 square foot room with only one desk. No windows, no access to peers, and no access to sunlight. The school told his parents that he was a danger to himself and others. Day after day he was suspended. Their community hasn’t been very supportive either. They were not allowed in many local establishments. Mason’s parents were exhausted emotionally, physically and mentally.

On arrival day, the family drove up to Camp Barnabas and saw nothing but smiling faces from everyone. His parents checked Mason in and headed home to wait. They were waiting for the call that said, “Come get him. We don’t want him here,” but it never came. Slowly but surely, Facebook blew up with posts from Camp Barnabas. There were pictures of Mason with his volunteers, and he was having the time of his life!  Their worries grew less and less over the next few days. When his parents came back to pick Mason up they were excited to see him but they were nervous that they would be told that he was not welcome back for the next summer. But that was not the news that awaited them. Mason’s volunteers and staff member both had wonderful things to say about him. His parents have never had that kind of news. 

It is for stories like this that Camp Barnabas exists, but it is also why the church exists... to love, love, love, people to Jesus. Once they make it to Jesus we can stand back and watch the miracles happen. This week, looking at the story of the Shepherds, we can see a parallel. They too were forgotten by society; isolated and ignored. But God saw it fit to send them a personal invitation (which was quite the extravagant invitation) to come in and meet their Savior, Jesus.

If you feel like you have been pushed out and forgotten can I tell you, you have not. You have a Savior that longs to pull you close. He notices you. He knows your needs. He knows YOU. And I encourage you to take on the role of the heavenly hosts from the first Christmas. Find the overlooked, ignored, outcasts, and give them a personal invitation to meet their Savior, JESUS. 

Catch up on the story of the Shepherds here.
Catch the full series "Stories," looking at different character perspectives within the Christmas story here.

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