The Special Friends Retreat is the most highly anticipated event of the year for its campers. This year was an especially joyous occasion as it was the first one held after a two-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are so glad that we get to see everyone and have fun together this year,” Jennifer Howington, Childhood Ministry specialist, said as campers and volunteers began to fill the opening session of the retreat.
Special Friends is for those with special needs who are 12 years of age or older, their parents and chaperones, and those who work with these individuals. The retreat began in 1976 with 30 campers, and this year the retreat saw over 250 campers, guardians and workers.
Volunteers from around the state come to help put on this two-day event. Helen Morris, former director of Special Needs at her church, has been volunteering with Special Friends for 11 years. Her favorite part of the retreat is watching the campers worship.
“They worship God with their whole heart,” she said. “To see the joy that goes on here, it blesses them but it also really blesses [the volunteers].”
The camp divides campers into smaller groups to participate in Bible Studies, crafts and entertainment. This year, Morris worked with a group from Temple, Texas, whom she helped lead a Bible Study for. She explained that teachers use different tactics to help campers learn the lesson, including hands-on activities and skits.
“They learn in a different way, and so we try to present the information in the way they learn,” she said.
In the main session, Camp Pastor Scott Sharman, senior pastor of Alsbury Baptist Church, taught about being a true friend.
“Being a friend to somebody is not simply liking that person or liking the same interests; being a friend is being dependable, trustworthy and faithful,” Sharman said.
He encouraged the campers to make new friends during the retreat and to treat them the way Jesus would want them to be treated.
The most highly anticipated event during Special Friends is the Talent Show, which takes place on Friday night. Many of the groups practiced for months beforehand, learning songs and routines to demonstrate in front of their peers. The crowd joined in whenever they knew the lyrics and encouraged their friends on stage.
Michael, who has been attending the retreat for years, chose a country song that his eight-year-old niece helped him pick out. He said that the talent show and the community are his favorite parts of the camp.
“I always have a great time here,” he said.
Mandy Leggett, a volunteer with Mobberly Baptist Church in Longview, explained that Special Friends is a place for the campers to belong and feel like they are really a part of something. Mobberly Baptist Church brought a group of campers from a nearby group home, something she encouraged other churches to consider doing as well.
The excitement and joy that campers experience at Special Friends are contagious, she said, adding that the campers always return home eager to start planning for the next retreat.
“As soon as they step off the bus they’re asking about the next year,” she said.
For more information on Special Friends Retreats or to volunteer next year, please contact Sarah Johnson at sarah.johnson[at]txb.org or call 214-828-5205.