A tale of two camps: including friends with disabilities

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What if we spent more time asking “How do we?” instead of saying “We can’t.” What if we asked “What can we do?” instead of saying “We’ve never.” What if inclusion were the norm and exclusion bewildered us?

I’ve been to two different camps this summer. At the first, a junior high girl was sent home not for being disruptive, not for sneaking out, bringing alcohol or drugs, starting a fire, or  having sex. She was sent home because she was born with FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome).

She was the right age. She had a counselor who was both a little overwhelmed yet excited to be with her. She needed extra attention and came across as younger than she was…but she was there. She could tell you exactly what was happening in a conversation even when it seemed she wasn’t paying attention. But she was sent home.

I ached for this girl. I ached equally for the family who trusted their child to a church camp, a Christian community, an extension of the body of Christ only to have her turned away. I have researched and interviewed hundreds of families who have shared such stories with me. Most left the church. Many walked away from God. This was the first time I was at the camp to see it happen. The leaders of this camp made the decision to send her home without the counselor’s input or mine.

I want to be careful, these are good people seeking to serve God and simply felt they were not equipped, that this young woman was a distraction to others and that she was not getting anything out of being at camp. They decided that they were not the ones who should be doing this.

But maybe it wasn’t about what she would get. (Though I believe the Lord was speaking clearly to her and she was much more aware than most realized.) Maybe it was about what she brought to the table. About what she could teach the leaders and campers. Maybe it was about the camp and its staff being a light on a hill to her family finally welcoming one of their beloved in. Maybe. But it wasn’t. The only answer was “we can’t.”

At the second camp I’ve attended this summer, I had the privilege of helping to greet group after group after group of teenagers whose needs went far beyond needing a little extra attention. Roughly 100 special needs friends came to camp. Travel alone was demanding. Flights, long drives, extra helpers for wheelchairs, meds for days…and with every new challenge, the question became “what can we do to be a friend to this person?” “What do we need to build?” (as in ramps), and “How can we accomodate?” This was not because everyone there was trained. In fact, for many it was the first time meeting a friend with special needs. It was because there have been people who weren’t afraid to change the question. They moved from “should we?” to “how do we?” and never looked back!

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About Amy Jacober

Amy Jacober (PhD, Fuller Seminary) is a youth ministry veteran with ministry and teaching experience. She focuses on practical theology, urban ministry, theology & disability, and marginalized communities. She is a volunteer youth worker in her church and community, lead consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and serves on the Young Life Capernaum national board. In her free time she can be found playing with her three young children, husband, and oversized dog.