There is one picture that Mary Tatum, the Disabilities Ministry leader at Southeast Christian Church, looks forward to seeing each year at Camp Freedom, the camp for children and adults with disabilities, held at Country Lake Christian Retreat in Underwood, Indiana.
The image is one of inclusion—the lake’s shore and the pool deck are lined with empty wheelchairs.
Those who claim them are in canoes, swimming in the water or going down the waterslide.
Each year, the weekend is full of moments such as these. This year’s camp, held July 27 through 29, was no different.
“Anything can happen at Camp Freedom,” said volunteer Kacey Wheeler. “There are no boundaries here. Everything is made accessible to everybody.”
Whether participating in lake activities or engaging in worship, campers saw that living with a disability does not mean living with a limitation.
The theme at camp this year was “friendship.”
Each day, campers worshiped together and heard a message on the significance of living in a relationship with Jesus and in relationships with others.
More than 200 campers and volunteers were in attendance.
It was many campers’ first time attending Camp Freedom or a Southeast event.
Some who were nervous upon their arrival quickly saw why other campers, who have previously attended, count down the days until camp.
At Camp Freedom, each camper is paired with a volunteer counselor who accompanies them for all three days of camp.
Friendships quickly sparked between them.
“It was humbling to watch hearts change and relationships form,” Tatum said.
Joy spread throughout the camp.
Campers enjoyed lake-time favorites such as a zip line and waterslide. Memories were made as campers participated in a talent show.
Many took part in archery, fishing, swimming, arts and crafts and horseback riding.
Many campers stepped out of their comfort zone to try something new.
Some made steps toward faith, and began a relationship with Christ. Two campers made the decision to be baptized.
Some canoed or rode a horse for the first time.
Camper Pam Heavrin, 29, is one who overcame a fear with the Lord’s help.
“I didn’t think I could do the waterslide or ride a horse,” she said. “But I’ve done it all. I learned to trust God, and that the people here can help you.”
Many shared similar stories.
“There aren’t many other places where you see someone who is nonverbal and has limited mobility have the courage to get up in front of 200 people they don’t know before the weekend and perform at a talent show,” Wheeler said. “But that happens here.”
Campers were not the only ones who were impacted at Camp Freedom.
Wheeler, 19, began serving at Camp Freedom in eighth grade when her mother encouraged her to sign up.
“I was hesitant at first, but when I went, I fell in love with it here,” she said.
Over the years, she has formed many friendships. When campers arrive each year, they remember her by name and run to greet her. As she continued to serve, her love for those in the ministry grew.
Wheeler, a sophomore now at High Point University, is pursuing a degree in occupational therapy and plans to work with individuals with disabilities. She credits those at Camp Freedom for her career path.
“I wouldn’t have chosen this path if it weren’t for my time at Camp Freedom,” she said.
Emily Jacobson, 19, shares a similar story. Jacobson began serving as a freshman in high school.
Now a sophomore at Western Kentucky University, Jacobson, who is studying to be a nurse, also thanks her friends at Camp Freedom for helping her discover her passion to serve others.
“When I first came to Camp Freedom, I knew this is what I want to do—care for people,” she said.
Through serving, Jacobson has found a time-tested adage about serving others to be true.
“We’ve been told we bless them,” she said. “But I think I am the one who leaves blessed.”
Over the weekend, Wheeler asked one camper, who is confined to a wheelchair, if she had one wish, what would it be.
Her response brought her to tears.
“She said, ‘I want to meet God,’” Wheeler said. “She didn’t say that she wanted to walk, or run or jump. She wanted to meet and be in the presence of God.”
Moments such as these stand out most.
“You can see that they are not just here to have fun and play in the lake,” Wheeler said. “The campers come because they genuinely love and want to know more about Him. They sing and raise their hands in worship and know they’re worshiping Him.”
Volunteer Kristen Trent, 22, said the campers spur her on in faith.
“They show me that it can be a lot easier to share the Gospel than we realize,” she said. “Campers want to tell everyone they meet about Jesus. And they do.”
Trent said common phrases heard throughout the weekend were evidence of this. She heard campers ask one another, “Hey, have you heard about Jesus?”
Another camper asked Trent if she had heard the Good News.
“They encourage me to be more outspoken about my faith,” she said. “They’re not afraid. I shouldn’t be either.”
Camper Chrystal Harmon, 27, is one who could not hold back her love for the Lord.
“I’ve loved church all my life,” Harmon said. “And I think it looks a lot like church here.”
Many volunteers also stepped out of their comfort zone while serving at Camp Freedom.
God blessed them there.
Gracie Riddle, 15, a sophomore at Sacred Heart Academy, volunteered for the first time at Camp Freedom.
Riddle said her younger sister, who is disabled, was her inspiration to serve.
“I knew that if I came to Camp Freedom I could help a camper have the time of their life,” she said. “I was really nervous at first, afraid I wouldn’t have the right thing to say or that I would do something wrong, but God helped me through that fear. And I made a new friend.”
Camper Serena Busch, 16, who has Down syndrome, hugged Riddle as she spoke.
Jason Allen, 26, signed up to volunteer at Camp Freedom last summer when someone spoke about the need for volunteers at a College-Age Ministry gathering.
“I had no previous experience,” he said. “But I had help.”
Allen said he quickly learned that he didn’t need to be qualified to be a friend.
“The relationship made with my camper last year is the reason I came back,” he said.
Linda Grady first read about the need for volunteers in an Outlook article seven years ago.
She has volunteered every year since.
“It’s a weekend where you really see people who have been labeled by disabilities have the freedom to be like anybody else,” she said. “It can be an emotionally and physically exhausting weekend, but when you see their faces, hear their laughter and see what they get to experience, it’s worth it every time.”
Tatum said illustrations of the camp’s theme were displayed throughout the weekend.
Friendships were formed at every corner.
“What inspires me most at camp is when I look around and can’t tell who is a camper and who is a volunteer,” Tatum said. “We’re all friends. Made in the image of God.”
Ross Knecht, executive director at Country Lake, said Camp Freedom is one of the most memorable weekends of the year for his staff.
While lifeguarding at the lake or leading outdoor activities, many on staff have the opportunity to engage and be a part of each camper’s experience.
“I speak on behalf of our entire staff when I say that we receive far more blessing than we give,” Knecht said. “We love seeing the compassion that overflows from our staff for these campers and the joy they get out of serving.”
Many of the workers in the kitchen at Country Lake know each camper by name, what their food preferences are and how to serve them best.
“God is really working in this ministry,” Knecht said. “Mary and her team are incredible to work with and their passion for serving the campers is contagious.”
The contagion spread throughout the weekend.
“You see some come to Christ. You see leaders being good servants, and leading the campers in a Christian way,” said volunteer Ike Unseld.
Unseld said serving is one way to see the Gospel spread.
“It’s a sacrifice to serve, but Jesus died for His fellow man,” he said. “And we can witness to others by loving and serving them. This has been a great, fulfilling and challenging experience. I’m already looking forward to it next year.”