Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Joni and Friends Camp Part 1

Leslie Basham: When families are affected by disability, they need moments to get away, get some help, take a break and be refreshed. That’s why Joni Eareckson Tada is excited to share about the Joni and Friends family retreats.

Joni Eareckson Tada: Sometimes these families just have nowhere else to turn, and they hear about a Joni and Friends family retreat, and for them it’s the last straw before they just “throw in the towel.”

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Wednesday, March 28.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: At Revive Our Hearts we’re calling women to experience freedom and fullness and fruitfulness in Christ, and you hear that a lot. We’re trying to help women experience what it is to walk in freedom from sin and from self, and then to experience the fullness of God’s Spirit and His grace in their lives.

But that’s not an end in itself. We want the women who are exposed to this ministry to become fruitful, to have overflow and outflow from what God is doing in their lives. So I’m always looking for opportunities where God can use women in ways that will impact others’ lives.

One of the ministries that I’ve become aware of in the last few years—I just keep hearing about it and thinking, “I need to let our listeners know about this ministry,” because I believe there are some who would really want to get involved. All of our listeners need to know more about it and be praying and encouraging and supporting this outreach in every way that they can.

I’m talking about the family retreats that are hosted by Joni and Friends, led by my dear friend, Joni Eareckson Tada. I want you to hear for these next couple of days about those retreats for the families of the disabled. I have the privilege this week of being in the studio with Joni Tada and having her tell us about those retreats.

Joni, thank you for letting us know about this ministry that has been a blessing to so many families. I want our listeners to be a blessing to this ministry. We want to know more about it.

Joni: Absolutely, and Nancy, I’m so grateful that you’re helping us get the word out about these awesome family retreats: five days of hands-down, slam-dunk, off-the-charts, over-the-top fun and fellowship for these families affected by disability. Whether it’s a couple with disabilities, let’s say a husband or a wife in a wheelchair, or a family with a child with autism or spina bifida, what have you. We gear these five-day retreats around the family.

Nancy: So the whole family can come and participate in the retreats. Do siblings come too?

Joni: It’s great for siblings to hang out with other siblings, and get to know other brothers and sisters who deal with the unique issues that a kid will deal with when they have a sibling with a severe disability.

Also mom and dad get a break because we have volunteers—we call them short-term missionaries—to provide that hands-on respite during the day for that kid who has disabilities. So mom and dad can enjoy some activities on their own, and yet come together as a family in the late afternoon, and to enjoy the evening activities.

So it’s five days of wheel-chair rock climbing, zip-lining, the slip ‘n’ slide, wheelchair square dancing, getting in the swimming pool, arts and crafts, wheelchair tennis . . . you name it.

Nancy: Okay, everything you just mentioned is pretty much more activity than I get myself, you’re way ahead of me . . .

Joni: Well, what’s fun is, you can opt out on anything you want. We want these families to come and experience spiritual refreshment. And, of course, we have great camp pastors, usually pastors of local churches with whom we partner, who come and give very soul-stirring, faith-stretching messages from God’s Word, and give the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We want special needs families to come who don’t know Jesus, because here they’ll see other families affected by disability deal with a life crisis from a biblical perspective. We want that to win them to the side of the Savior, so it’s an opportunity for unsaved families to come to hear about Jesus, to know about Jesus.

Also, it’s a wonderful chance for Christian families who have a child with disability to get set on fire to go back home to their individual churches and start disability ministry outreach in their own congregations. Get other people in the College and Career group coming back next summer to volunteer.

So we think the families that come to our family retreats, number one, come into the kingdom, come to know Jesus. If they don’t know Him, they’ll certainly hear about Him at a family retreat , but secondly to help Christian families with children with disabilities get a handle on how to take the Luke 14 mandate, go out to find the disabled and bring them into their own congregations. It’s great.

Nancy: And this, of course, has been birthed out of your own experience. We think everybody knows the story of Joni, but with the new generation coming up, not everybody does. You’ve been in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic for forty-five years now. I assume this burden for these retreats came out of your own experience.

Was there anything like this available when you had that diving accident as a teenager?

Joni: Nothing like this, nothing at all, but let me share with you how I got this vision. Back in the late 1980s I was on the National Council on Disability, appointed by President Reagan, then reappointed by President Bush. And our council, a fifteen-member council in Washington D.C., decided to hold a family conference, as we called it.

So the government flew in all these head honchos and the Social Security Administration and we had all the experts on the panel, and families were invited and they sat in workshops and took notes, and we had position papers and panel discussions . . .

I’m sitting in the back of the room watching all that’s going on and thinking, “These families are bored. They are so tired. They need to have fun, and what’s more, they need real answers, answers with a capital “A.” They need The Answer. They need to hear about Jesus.

The government spent over a quarter of a million dollars on that conference, and I look back and I think it was a dismal failure on behalf of those families. I remember the day that conference was over, I drove back to Agora Hills, California, where our Joni and Friends office is located, and sought out our leadership team and said, “You know what, friends, we can do a family conference. We’ll call it a retreat, and we can do it much better and much cheaper and have a lot more fun. We can give families real answers from God’s Word that will transform their lives.”

That was back in the ‘80s and we held our first family retreat in 1991.

Nancy: Do you remember that? What was the highlight?

Joni: O my goodness, yes. Well, talent night is always a big highlight. But this particular family retreat was at Spruce Lake in the Pocono Mountains. I think we had eight families and maybe ten volunteers. It was small; it was humble, but we had such a great time.

Around the campfire singing hymns, making s’mores, telling stories, sharing testimonies . . . Talent night was such great fun. I will never forget, there was a young girl in a wheelchair and as she was wheeled onto the stage under the spotlight. Her talent was . . . with great effort and much labor, because she was so spastic with her cerebral palsy, and it took a good long minute for her finger to touch the right button on her communication board . . .

Her talent was hitting that button and all of us listening to her communication device sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . .”

You’ve heard the Bible speak about “singing a new song to the Lord;” well, this was this girl’s time in the spotlight to sing Amazing Grace in a way that none of us had ever heard. Boy, did we weep. Moments like that grip the heart and touch you at a deep core that you never realized you had.

When you can look into the face of a kid with cerebral palsy, up there in the spotlight, having a chance to sing her praises to God in a way that she’d never experienced, and have everyone jump to their feet in wild applause and tears cheering her back to the front row, those are timeless moments,

Nancy: Do you think, for many of these families, this is a first-time experience?

Joni: O, definitely. There are many camps for handicapped kids across the United States, but we are the only ministry or organization, I think, that hold retreats for the entire families. So there will be times for dads to get together, one on one, and unload and share, and have a discussion around God’s Word.

I’ll never forget, I was in the back of the room at one women-to-women’s discussion and there was a woman participating in this group discussion. She had been quiet and reserved all week long, a Mennonite woman named Martha who had come at the urging of her pastor. She did not want to come.

The reason she did not want to come was that she was the one who was at the wheel one night when her car turned over and went into the ditch. Her youngest son suffered a serious spinal cord injury which left him in a wheelchair. She did not want to be around people with disabilities, she did not want to think of herself or her family as handicapped.

I noticed most of the week she was stand-offish, did not participate in activities, but there at that women-to-women session she sat quietly and listened to the other women speak about, “I regret leaving that bottle of poison out, and now look what’s happened to my son . . .”

Around the room she heard these women express their deep regrets and guilt and shed tears. I watched her as silent tears began rolling down her cheeks because she, no doubt, was thinking, “I wish I had stayed awake at the wheel . . .”

The relief that came over her at the end of that particular woman-to-women session as women stood, embraced each other, prayed earnestly, read Scriptures to one another, bolstered each other’s spirits . . .

Now, I’m happy to say, this woman Martha and her whole family, even the one in the wheelchair, come and volunteer as a whole family. Her sons enjoy going to other retreats as well, so it’s really life transforming.

Nancy: I would say some of these parents and siblings are just tired physically, emotionally stressed and strained over the extra demands of dealing with a disabled child. I would think this might be just refreshing for some of them.

Joni: Absolutely refreshing. There’s so much social isolation when you’re a special needs family. Sometimes you’re so worn out from going to and fro from the hospital, medical appointments, physical therapy, carting your kid back and forth, picking up things at the pharmacy, you’re just worn out by Sunday morning.

So there’s a lot of social isolation, there’s a lot of pressure on daily routines, just having to go through these daily things that just wear on your heart. There’s also financial strain, and I’m very happy to share that our ministry has a very healthy scholarship fund, which we provide to families who cannot afford to come.

We often match church grants, dollar for dollar. We get the churches to get involved, get them to step up to the plate, so that a church has an investment in that family as well.

Last summer I was at our family retreat in North Carolina and met a little family. Seth was the father, and his two sons, Zack and Jeremy. Jeremy had been in an automobile accident the year before. 

A friend was driving too fast, hit a tree, the tree split the car down the middle, Jeremy lost both his legs and one arm. His friend was killed at the wheel, and his brother Zack in the back seat didn’t suffer any physical injuries, but was suffering from clinical depression when they arrived at the family retreat.

So you’ve got this little threesome—this worn-out, slump-shouldered dad and his two sons, one of whom is sorely depressed, suicidally depressed, and his brother Jeremy without legs and with only one arm that works. The anger, the questions, the bitterness, the frustration, the what about the future, the anxiety, the fear . . . that’s typical for many of these families who come who have suffered catastrophic injuries or medical diagnoses that are life-altering for the family. A child born with multiple disabilities, and sometimes these families have nowhere else to turn.

They hear about a Joni and Friends family retreat. For them it’s the last straw before they throw in the towel. I’m happy to say that so many of these families come to Christ. Or even Christian families who are dragged down, worn out, and near to giving up, they experience spiritual refreshment because they meet other moms and dads, other kids with disabilities who are persevering, who are enduring hardships like good soldiers, who are trusting God in the midst of thick darkness and yet finding the light of hope that lights their path each and every day. That is inspiring. So, thank you for helping us to get this word out to more special needs families who need this kind of refreshment.

Leslie: That’s Joni Eareckson Tada. She’s been talking with Nancy Leigh DeMoss about Joni and Friends family retreats. There are a couple of reasons we want to share this information with you: If your family is affected by a disability, we want to let you know about these retreats so you can attend. We’re also telling you about the retreats so you can consider volunteering as a short-term missionary at one of these retreats.

Keep that important need in mind as you hear from a family who has experienced first-hand how important these retreats are. Don and Cindy Riker have a son who is affected by autism and mild mental retardation. Don remembers the first time he heard about the Joni and Friends family retreat.

Don Riker: it’s amazing how many people in our church schedule their vacations around the family retreat so they can go and serve in a variety of capacities, overseeing all levels of activities for different ages from young children on up through adults.

Those were the people who had said, “You folks really need to go to the family retreat. It’s hard for us to explain how much you will benefit from it as a family.” Their excitement and their energy encouraged us. We said, "Wow! We’ve never heard of this, but we’re definitely willing to give it a try. We were grateful to be able to get in because the retreats on our weekend run for three separate weeks, and they’re always full and always have  a waiting list. So we were very grateful to get in that first year, which was several years ago. We’ve never looked back.

Leslie: When Don and Cindy arrived at the camp for the first time, they sensed two things: the staff is sensitive to the needs of their guests, and each guest is treated very specially.

Don: It was amazing. We pulled up to the retreat center, which is at the bottom of a hill and all the buildings are at the top. We were stopped by some people who asked for our names, checked them off the list and asked, “Would you prefer a loud or a quiet welcome?” Because they’re sensitive to the needs of different people, and some people can’t handle it.

So we looked at our son, and he said loud was okay. So we said, “A loud one.” We went up. They had radioed our answer. By the time we got to the top of the hill there were all the volunteers and staff with all kinds of decorations, and they were cheering and shouting the moment they could see our car until we stopped.

Cindy Riker: We felt like royalty.

Don: The welcome was overwhelming, and that really was the heart for the rest of the week. Everybody was there to bless us, to care for our son in a way that we would not have to be involved much at all, from early morning until early evening. He was paired with a short-term missionary and was really happy with what was going on. We had a freedom that we have not had since we received him through adoption when he was two months old.

Leslie: The Rikers were so grateful for the short-term missionaries who invested in their family during the family retreat . . .

Don: I think Cindy and I were both blown away by the reality there were people who take a week out of their lives—some of them take vacation time from work—they pay their own expenses—to be there at the camp. But then they’re paired as a buddy to walk through the week with each person with special needs.

To see the care that was given to our son, and again the freedom that it gave us . . . Cindy and I looked at each other at some point and said, “What do we do now? We’re not having to be worried about him.” It was a safe, wonderful environment, and we experienced a freedom there we’ve not experienced since probably before we had children.

Cindy: They pray over every match, and we’ve been amazed how God superintends, because a child with autism has a hard time in new situations and with new people. I’m thinking, “We’re going to be there for days—the first four days Jordan’s going to have trouble even adjusting to this.”

But they won—God just intervened, and He made this really neat match. The moment they close the doors at the end of the week, they’re already thinking about next year and how to improve, how to invite God’s wisdom and insight into how to better meet everybody’s needs. It’s an amazing thing.

Don: On top of that, God is so wonderful in His care for all. Most, if not all, of the short-term missionaries find their experience life-changing. At the end of the week, there’s a gathering where they reflect on their week, and many of them are in tears, giving testimonies on how God changed their lives through spending the week with the person they were paired with.

Often they felt they gained far more from that, and through what God did in their lives through that, than what they gave out, which is really substantial.

Leslie: Cindy Riker describes how important the Joni and Friends family retreat is for her son.

Cindy: He’s allowed to be himself. He’s acutely aware of the differences between him and his schoolmates, and that’s just a big hurdle for him (even though I think he often magnifies it), so it makes it seem even more different that it really is.

Here in this atmosphere, he’s on equal footing with everyone. He’s celebrated for who he is and not what he wears, what he looks like, what athletic events he does, he just “is.” So he thrives there, like, who wouldn’t?

Don: With all this, one of the things we see is that the atmosphere provides a lot of spiritual and emotional healing for individuals and families, to be celebrated for who you are and not for what you’re not. To experience healthy community life, to experience God’s presence through so many different avenues, really transforms people. It’s not just about a fun week, it’s a transformative week for just about everyone who attends.

Leslie: for more information on the Joni and Friends family retreats, visit our website at If your family is affected by disability, I hope you’ll take the time to get more information about this opportunity to rest and be refreshed and make lasting memories – and if you’ve been listening thinking, “Maybe I could volunteer at a retreat. What an adventure!” take the next step and get more information.

Don’t forget, our guest today, Joni Eareckson Tada, will be speaking at True Woman '12 this September in Indianapolis. Don’t miss your opportunity to hear from this woman that God has so powerfully used while confined to her wheelchair for decades. If you register before May 1, you’ll get a big discount. So get more details at

Tomorrow Joni Eareckson Tada will again join Nancy Leigh DeMoss to describe ways you can get involved with a family affected by disability. I hope you can be back. To end our time, we’ll return to Don Riker.

Don: We’re so thank for Joni and the others who had the vision to start the first family retreat, and how it has grown over the years and spread throughout the nation. I cannot speak too highly of the impact, not only that it has on us as a family, but on all the families that we have seen in the time that we have been there. I am very thankful for all the people, the staff members who volunteer their time, the short-term missionaries—they make a huge difference that I believe lasts for eternity.

As people, we’re eternal, so it’s not the difference for this week, this year, this month, the coming years, but it is actually eternal. So I encourage anyone who has a desire to get plugged into one of these retreats and serve, there are so many different ways they can get involved. Find out what places are available for service.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.




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About the Speaker

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love …

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