Barren Heights

Barren Heights offers free weekend retreats for people with special needs and their families. Activities include basketball, tennis, Bible studies and games, such as a water balloon toss (above).

Planning retreats for families on the wait list is always on the mind of Abbi Rose, the executive director at Barren Heights, a ministry that seeks to love and encourage families dealing with special needs through free weekend retreats and community outreach events. 

Camps at Barren Lake provide a place where families can rest and enjoy activities with other families dealing with many of the same issues. It’s a place to be accepted, loved and encouraged.

Rose grew up in the ministry, which is a new mission partner of Southeast Christian Church.

Her parents, Joe and Toni Rose, longtime members of Southeast, originally bought the land for their lake house. At the time, they were thinking investment. But a serious accident in 2002 changed everything. Their car flipped over three times and caught fire. Suddenly, perspective and purpose changed.

As the Roses studied “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren and listened to Joni Erickson Tada, who advocates for those with special needs since a diving accident left her a quadriplegic, they began thinking about sharing their lake property with families dealing with special needs.

They mapped out a 10-year plan to build cabins, tennis courts, a basketball court and more. But God had other plans. Ten months later they hosted their first free retreat for a group of families that included a child with special needs. Since then, they have hosted more than 250 families and 5,000 people from 17 states. They now plan 25 retreats a year that are staffed by volunteers.

“All of it is life-changing,” Abbi Rose said. “We serve the whole family. This is a safe place for them. Many families we serve never go on vacation. There is no age limit, and we serve a multitude of physical and developmental disabilities.”

Retreats include Bible studies and casual worship services in the barn for the entire family. It doesn’t matter if a child interrupts or needs immediate attention. There are activities for kids of all ages as well as respite for parents.

Marshall Fall had no experience with special needs when he volunteered for a camp 11 years ago.

“It was easy and fun,” Fall said. “We learned that these families just want to be loved like everyone else. We especially loved serving as a family. When we went the first time, we had not intended to fall in love with the families and other volunteers. Since that first trip, we’ve gone twice a year. It’s been an amazing journey.”

Fall said you can see families shed anxiety and fear once they see that the camp is safe, welcoming and embraces their child with special needs as well as their other children. Few are ready to leave when the retreat ends.

One dad left a note for volunteers: “This was exactly what our family needed. We arrived in need of a time to disconnect from our worries and cares, and we are leaning closer as a family with a renewed faith in God. Best vacation ever on every level.”

The staff at Barren Heights is passionate about families with special needs.

“These families are on duty 24/7 without breaks,” Rose said. “Many don’t get vacations. They long for community, acceptance and understanding. At Barren Heights, we care for the whole family. Often, siblings are overlooked in the demands of caring for a special-needs child. Camp is for them, too.”

In 2015, Barren Heights added a community center in Louisville that gives families a chance to gather throughout the year.

“That gives us a chance to pour into families through fun family events, men’s, women’s and couples’ ministries that also provide Bible studies, social events and date nights with free childcare,” Rose said.

Many volunteers stay connected to families long after retreats end.

“We know volunteers who have stayed with kids so their parents could have a date night and some who have helped with simple projects at the house such as building a fence in the backyard,” Rose said. “They continue to encourage and love on those they meet at camp.”

To learn more about Barren Heights, visit