Happiness Retreat campers find joy, acceptanceby C. Walter Overman
Cindy Thomas attended her first Happiness Retreat one year ago when she came as a chaperone to three special needs children from Burkemont Baptist Church in Morganton.
It was an experience the children wished would never end.
“Our kids cried last year when they left,” Thomas said. “They have been excited about coming back since the day they left.”
Happiness Retreat is an annual camp sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) that is designed for people of all ages with developmental disabilities.
The camp is like a mini Vacation Bible School and includes worship, Bible study, arts and crafts, and games. More than 800 campers and chaperones attended Happiness Retreat this year, spanning four three-day retreats at Caraway Conference Center in Asheboro and one three-day retreat at Truett Camp near Hayesville.
Thomas said the campers love Happiness Retreat because it uniquely meets their needs.
“This camp is on their level and everybody here is just like them,” Thomas said. “If they say something out of character or they stand up and dance nobody thinks anything of it. They are accepted as they are.”
Thomas believes the most important part of the camp is the opportunity given to the campers to hear and respond to the gospel.
Two campers from Burkemont accepted Christ and were baptized shortly after returning home from last year’s retreat. Thomas said the camp experience was essential to their decisions for Christ.
The gospel is not limited
Donnie Wiltshire, BSCNC consultant for special ministries, said there is no limitation to the power of the gospel, and for that reason evangelism is the primary purpose of Happiness Retreat.
“We believe that people with special needs can respond to Christ. We always present the gospel and we call people with special needs to respond to the gospel,” Wiltshire said. “We do not twist or pressure but we share the gospel in ways that they can understand.”
Every year Wiltshire sees God moving in the lives of the campers.
“Our campers who come back every year are growing in their faith and loving the Lord and wanting to serve the Lord in their churches,” he said.
Happiness Retreat is also a unique place where people with special needs can find love, acceptance and the freedom to be themselves.
“There are very few places where people with special needs can have just a good Christian camp experience,” Wiltshire said. “It’s important for our campers to be in a loving and accepting environment.”
Something for everyone
Every year volunteers from North Carolina Baptist churches help lead in all aspects of the Happiness Retreat. The volunteers share a passion for special needs ministry and work hard to make sure every camper is loved and accepted.
Patsy Koutsogeorgas has served as a Happiness Retreat volunteer every year since 1976. She said the loving environment makes the camp the highlight of the year for most campers.
“They can express themselves very freely here and from the time they leave here they are planning to come for next year,” she said.
The camp is also a special time for Koutsogeorgas, who says she always looks forward to Happiness Retreat because she knows it will be a time of personal growth and joy.
“You learn so much and you gain so much because the campers teach you what it means to be yourself,” she said. “I love being around that.”
Her experience at Happiness Retreat impacts her in much the same way as it does the campers –it’s something she hopes never ends.
“This is just something you get used to and you don’t ever want to give it up,” she said. “It’s really a blessing.”
Brian Caldwell has served as a Happiness Retreat volunteer each of the past 25 years. During that time he has learned one of life’s most important lessons.
“I have really learned to love,” he said. “I try to take what it means to love people back home and live it out the rest of the year.”
But he is quick to point out that the camp is not about the volunteers; it’s all about serving the campers and making them feel special, and Caldwell said Happiness Retreat accomplishes that mission year after year.
“I think for most of the campers it’s a big vacation and I think they find that they are not the minority here,” he said. “Wouldn’t you love to find a place where you just fit?”
The love and joy is so great at Happiness Retreat that Caldwell considers it a taste of heaven on earth.
“I feel like this is as close to the Kingdom as I have found on this side of things,” he said. “It’s a Kingdom place.”
For more information on how churches can minister to individuals with special needs contact Donnie Wiltshire at [email protected].