Happiness Retreats: 40th year helping special people

by Mike Creswell
  • Happiness Retreat campers participate in the daily worship service.

  • Happiness Retreat campers participate in the daily worship service.

  • Donnie Wiltshire looks on during Happiness Retreat at Caraway.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | 73 days old

Call her Anna.

She sits at a table and smiles when the teacher gives her paint, a brush and a sheet of paper. She struggles to hold the brush properly and move it, but the teacher helps her manage.

Anna concentrates, her forehead wrinkled, as she paints the paper with bright blue paint, getting some on the table. Again, the teacher shows her how to get paint on the brush and work it across the board and says softly, "You just need a little paint on your brush."

Bit by bit, the "secret" message about Jesus becomes clear on the special paper.

Anna's face lights up! She did it! She found the secret message! She laughs aloud and claps her hands. Her classmates take note and clap for her too.

The paint project is part of a Vacation Bible School set of materials, much like children have used in churches across North Carolina this summer.

But Anna is not a child. She is a woman in her 40s. She has limited cognitive ability. She cannot manage on her own. She needs help to get through each day; that's why she lives in a group home.

North Carolina has many men and women like Anna. Getting dressed, getting a bath, getting food - these are all challenging tasks for them.

One of Donnie Wiltshire's ministry goals has long been to make sure that North Carolina Baptists do not overlook Anna and her kin. He often reminds churches what Jesus said, basically that how we treat the "least of these" is how we treat Him.

That, he believes, makes Happiness Retreats important. "The ministry has been possible down through the years because of the ongoing support of North Carolina Baptists through their Cooperative Program giving," Wiltshire said.

The class where Anna learned to paint was part of a Happiness Retreat. This year North Carolina Baptists sponsored five of these three-day retreats for people with special needs, including one at Truett Camp in Hayesville and others at Caraway Conference Center near Asheboro.

More than 700 people attended this year. It's a unique ministry few other organizations can match. Campers attending the Hayesville retreat come from across western North Carolina, from as far east as Gastonia.

This is an important year for the Happiness Retreats - it is their 40th anniversary.

"We started way back in 1974 at Caswell," Wiltshire said. Over the years the retreats have taken on great importance for Baptist churches who minister to people with special needs.

Some of those who teach and lead in the retreats have been serving for many years. Mrs. Patsy Koutsogeorgas, for example, who taught this year at both the Truett and Caraway retreats, has taught every year since 1976. She is a member of Mulberry Baptist Church in Charlotte.

This year marks Eric Vernon's 19th year serving with the retreats. He and a team from First Baptist Church, Sanford, served in the Caraway retreats.

His First Church team has the campers gather under a tent for Bible study, then they gather to move a brightly-colored parachute up and down as they move the campers from one side to the other. Vernon takes a moment to play catch, shake hands and encourage a young camper. Volunteer Kathy McSwain puts an arm around the shoulder of a camper, again to offer encouragement.

"The volunteers and staff seek to create a place of joy for special needs people and to connect them to Christ," Wiltshire said. Patient, repeated affirmations are a big part of the effort.

There is much talking to the campers, but not all, maybe even not most, of the communicating is verbal. Many campers communicate with sign language, gestures or their own language of sounds.

Wiltshire said they had to put a day between the four back-to-back retreats at Caraway to give the volunteers a chance to rest, because the retreat days and nights are long, with non-stop activities. The first retreat was held in early June at Truett Camp, Hayesville.

"We believe people with special needs need to have a camp experience, a place where they, too, can have fun. Also in the camp we have this great opportunity to help them meet Jesus and learn about Him and what it means to be His disciple," he said.

Wiltshire defines the Happiness Retreat objective as making disciples among the special needs people of North Carolina.

"We believe many people with special needs can come to know Christ and can grow in their faith and share that faith with other people. That's what we're trying to do here -- to see that they have these kinds of experiences," he said during the retreat at Truett.

Along with the VBS teaching and crafts, the retreats include recreation, a talent show and other activities that constitute rare treats for these special people. This year each camp included a party to celebrate the ministry's 40th anniversary.

Staffing is important. "Caregivers come with the campers. Sometimes it's a parent. A lot of our campers come out of group homes and their professional caregivers come with them. We also have people from the churches that have ongoing ministries to people with special needs," he said.

Wiltshire's ministry with the Convention is to help churches minister to people with all sorts of needs.

He works with the Deaf and can communicate with sign language; more than 100 churches across the state have ministries to the Deaf. He also helps churches minister to the blind. He helps churches who want to teach people to read and write -- an increasingly important ministry as the state's immigrant population has soared in recent years.

But the Happiness Retreats have long been one of his most rewarding ministries.

Several classes group those with varying abilities. Some campers have physical disabilities and need help walking or can move only in wheelchairs. Some campers wear helmets because they often fall.

At Truett, the campers taught by Mrs. Myra Robinson all applauded when she told them she had New Testaments for them. She is a member of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Charlotte.

Mrs. Robinson asked the campers what they wanted to pray about and wrote each response on a board, including:

         -Michael is happy because he got saved.
         -Kevin is thankful that his Mom took him to Wal-Mart.
         -Gwen is happy because she has Jesus in her heart.

Mrs. Betty Hill was animated as she taught a Bible story to the campers. Hands rose as she asked questions. A member of Love Baptist Church in Monroe, Mrs. Hill taught this year in all five retreats.

One young man has done well; he gets to select a stuffed toy from a table piled high with them. He chooses one after long consideration. Volunteer Carolyn Vick stands by to help.

As the last retreat wound down in early August, tired staff and happy campers headed home. For the 40th year, the Happiness Retreats had lived up to their name.