By Ruth Whorton
There are some things in life that make you smile so much your face hurts. These joyful life moments are precious and rare, and the Special Friends Retreat is one of these experiences.
Through support from the Mary Hill Davis Offering and Texas Baptists’ Cooperative Program funding, the Special Friends Retreat is a product of the Texas Baptists Special Needs Ministry which provides an on-level camp experience for people with special needs. The Special Friends Retreat began 41 years ago with 30 campers. Today, there are 400 who attend every year at two locations.
Denny Byers, a camper at Special Friends, looks forward to the retreat every year. He enjoys that it is something special out of the normal routine of life. At the talent show he tells jokes which the crowed really enjoys, he says. He loves this weekend so much that every year he has flyers mailed to him to pass out to his friends inviting them to come and join him.
His goal: “I’d like to have 1,000 people there.” One downside of the retreat, he thinks, is the short length.
Denny remarked, “I’d like to have it two nights.”
Volunteers block off the second weekend in September and the first weekend in October at the start of every year to insure they will not have conflicts with the retreat. Brenda Sorrells is one of those volunteers.
Brenda was originally connected with Special Friends through her pastor who has two daughters with special needs. Brenda found she enjoyed spending time with the girls, so when her pastor asked if she would volunteer at the Special Friends Retreat, she agreed. With few preconceived ideas, Brenda did not know exactly what to expect upon arrival. However, what she was met with throughout the weekend proceeded to change her life forever.
Through a retreat grounded on an atmosphere of total acceptance, Brenda described her weekend as “truly moving.” She saw for the first time, through the example set by the campers with special needs, what it meant to fully worship God who loves unmeasurably. She remarked the self confidence the campers carried themselves with, recognizing this comes from their knowledge that “they are all unique beings made only by God.”
Brenda now has the opportunity to share this incredible experience with her son, Shelton Sorrells, who attended the Special Friends Retreat for the first time in 2016. With his weekend open, Shelton decided to attend the retreat a few days before it began. He heard great stories about the retreat from his mom years prior, and was excited to go himself.
The reality Shelton was met with from the instant he arrived was the love of God he felt shining through every single person. He had no idea how much he would be impacted through being a volunteer. The Special Friends Retreat demolished the mindset Shelton had about volunteering. He saw the way the retreat impacted those who volunteer in addition to those who attend. He was moved to tears throughout the weekend by the overwhelming love he was shown by the campers.
Shelton had a minor expectation that he would find some campers discouraged by their disabilities; however, he found that this was far from the truth.
He remarked, “They have every right to be mad at God but they choose to get on their knees and worship the one who makes them whole.”The blessings Shelton received through Special Friends continue to impact him. He now shares his experiences with others so they will come volunteer and see the purity of the Special Friends Retreat. To someone contemplating volunteering Shelton encourages, “Come! You will be forever changed.”
Texas Baptists Discipleship Lead, Phil Miller said, “The Special Friends Retreat is one of the best things we do.”
Creating an open, judgement-free camp experience for people with Special Needs is an impactful ministry for the campers and their parents who are encouraged to attend. One concern for families every year is having the finances to return the following fall. It is difficult for campers to fundraise, and they rely on the generous support of the Mary Hill Davis Offering and Cooperative Program Funds to keep the registration cost low. Without this financial contribution, many would not experience the joy that overflows at the Special Friends Retreat.
Volunteers like Brenda and Shelton Sorrells make the Special Friends Retreat possible for campers year after year. Attending together is a unique ministry they will continue to carry on. Brenda is grateful, “Shelton fell in love with it as much as I did,” and knows volunteers for years to come will experience the same.