Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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Joni and Friends Camp Part 2

Leslie Basham: Here's Joni Eareckson Tada.

Joni Eareckson Tada: Eighty percent of couples who experience the birth of a disabled child in their family, eighty percent, will end in divorce. That's shocking! We want to be a part in helping to change that statistic, and we're doing it.

Leslie: You're about to hear how you can help Joni change that statistic. This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Thursday, March 29. 

Yesterday, Nancy spoke with Joni Eareckson Tada about a unique opportunity you have to invest in the life of a family affected by disability. Joni has been confined to a wheel chair since the 1970s after a diving accident left her without the use of her arms or legs. She understands the multiple challenges facing families with a disability. 

So, Joni's ministry began family retreats across the country. As our listeners hear this conversation, many who are affected by disability will be thinking, "I need to attend one of these retreats." And others will be thinking, "It would be so valuable if I volunteered at a retreat investing time in one of these families." You can take the next step in getting involved by visiting Now, let's pick back up with Nancy Leigh DeMoss and Joni Eareckson Tada. 

Joni: Often the large portion of families who come to a family retreat are single moms. The dads have just given up. There's so much pressure and men take it personally. Men take it seriously when their son is born with multiple disabilities, and they experience the crush of shattered hopes for themselves. It's an attack on their masculinity. It drains the relationship with their wife of so much romance. They're so unlike, "typical couples," so often it's the dads who leave the family. So we see a lot of single mothers who bring their disabled children and siblings to a family retreat. 

But, of course, it is wonderfully precious when we can get these families before the divorce certificate is issued. In fact, that is so common, Nancy.  We hear from so many husbands and wives who say to us at the end of family retreat week, "We came here at the urging of our pastor. We didn't want to come because we were ready to call it quits. We were ready to say, that's it. We were ready to place our child, or experience a divorce. But now we can see that we can do it because we've met so many other husbands and wives, moms and dads, who are doing it. We've got scores of new friends, and we're part of a support group now. We can manage. We can make it happen."  And they experience renewal in their marriage.

So often at a family retreat, couples return the following year and renew their marriage vows because of what they experienced the year before was so life transforming in their marriage. Eighty percent of couples who experience the birth of a disabled child in their family, eighty percent, will end in divorce. That's shocking, and we want to be a part in helping to change that statistic, and we're doing it.

Nancy: Can you think of a couple that's been really impacted in a positive way through coming to one of the retreats?

Joni: I was speaking at a college in the Midwest not long ago. The athletic director was in charge of our transportation. As we talked, he shared that he and wife had three children, one of whom had autism. Of course, when I learned this, I became very excited. I said, "We don't have any dinner plans. Why don't we treat you, your wife, and your family to dinner."

We entered that waiting room at that restaurant. It was crowded; it was noisy. Bus boys were rushing here and there, dishes clattering, doors to the kitchen opening and slamming, people getting up and paying for things at the cash register. Their son with the disability (his name was Brett) just went ballistic. 

By the time we got to our dining room table and sat down and ordered, he was having a melt down. It was all that Doug and Cindy could do to hold on to their little boy and to keep him from escaping and rushing out the door. Twisting, whining, letting out little shrieks. A moment or two later other diners from other tables started to look our way. I glanced at Brett's little brother and sister and they were embarrassed. They were covering their faces. They were feeling shame.

So I leaned over and I said, "Doug, we don't have to stay here. Let's just finish up the appetizer and then head someplace else." Which we did. But it sparked an interesting conversation. That dad, near tears, was just so slumped shoulder as was his wife. "This is what we go through all the time," she confessed, "and it hurts us so badly because we know what other people are thinking. We know they are thinking that we are poor parents. We don't discipline our child properly. But that's not it at all. Our child is on the severe end of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and this is just the ways things are."  

Well, I encouraged them to come to our family retreat that summer, and sure enough, they did. Oh my goodness, what a breath of fresh air it was for Doug and Cindy. And when I talked with them afterward, they said the biggest boost to them was meeting other couples who also had children with autism, and sharing hints, tools, tidbits, just talking shop. "How do you manage . . .? What do you do when . . .?" It was so refreshing just to know that they weren't alone.

Nancy: And that somebody understood.

Joni: Somebody understood, and not just that, Somebody with a capital S understood. They could find such hope and encouragement in God's Word. And now they're bringing other couples to family retreats, and I think that's pretty awesome. 

Nancy: Do you try to keep the retreats small and personal? How do you make sure that everybody gets the personal care and attention that they need?

Joni: Well, it all depends on how accommodating our conference centers can be. We've got some pretty accommodating facilities who go overboard to provide access to families. So a typical family retreat can have a couple hundred, divided up between families and volunteers and lots of exciting activities. Hot air balloon rides, petting zoos, swimming, wheelchair tennis, lots of activities just for men alone. What I like is the special afternoon teas which many of the family retreat leadership teams will organize for the women.

Nancy: I was going to say, I bet the dads really love those, right?

Joni: They're off someplace else, believe me. They're usually fishing at a lake or what have you. But the moms will enjoy tea and then have pampering for the afternoon, maybe getting their hair cut or nails done or a massage or a pedicure. You name it, we just pamper them. We make them feel so special. Usually that night is what we call date night at family retreat. A husband will come back from fishing and mom is all looking pretty and primped with a new hairdo and nails polished. We'll have a date night where moms and dads will sit with candlelight and enjoy a special dinner, just the two of them. We'll having roving violins. Oh, we just pull out all the stops to make it as romantic and as sweet as possible.

At the end of those times, often in tears, couples will turn and say, "We haven't done this in fifteen years." "My husband and I haven't had a date in twenty years." "This is incredible," they say. And again, when it's all given in the context of the love of Christ, that it's not us, it's not our leadership, it's not just Joni and Friends, it's Jesus is doing this. He wants you to know how special you are.  It's all a gift from Him. Then they are won close to the side of the Savior. 

Nancy: It must take a lot of people to pull this off, a lot of staff, a lot of assistance, a lot of volunteers. Where do all those people come from?

Joni: Well, I'm hoping a lot of volunteers will come out of our listening audience today. You know, 2 Corinthians chapter 9, verse 12 says, "that this service that you perform is overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God, because of the service by which you have proved yourselves." When we serve, when we practice Christianity, with it's sleeves rolled up, where we get down and help meet the rubber-of-the-road of people's needs, it's a chance for us to prove what we believe, to put it into practice, and this is what causes so much thanksgiving to flow back to God.

So our listeners today here on Revive Our Hearts, I'm envisioning that many of them will go to our website and will consider coming and serving, volunteering at one of our family retreats.  We'll have twenty-five family retreats all across the nation this summer scattered between Oregon down to Southern California, Texas, all along up and down the East Coast, and the Midwest, up in Minnesota, Michigan, they're everywhere.  All our listeners need to do is go on the Revive Our Hearts website

Nancy: And we'll have a link there that will take you right through to the Joni and Friends page about the family retreats. How do you sign up? What is the process to become a volunteer for a short-term missionary for one of the retreats?

Joni: Our process is all explained right there on line. You can register online.

Nancy: I mean, do you have to have special background, experience, or training.

Joni:  Thankfully. No. In fact, we have lots of elderly volunteers who come just to pray. To be a part of the prayer team.

Nancy: Isn't that great!

Joni: Some of the women come to volunteer to help in the nursery with all the infants with disabilities—with Down Syndrome or what have you. But we provide a full day of training for the average, the typical volunteer who will come. You have to arrive a day early, and we'll acquaint you thoroughly with the family to whom you will be assigned. We'll assess your skill level and match it to a family we believe that you would be best suited to help. 

There's all kinds of hands-on training of what you need to know, the do's, the don'ts, things you will want to remember, helpful hints, things to say, not to say.  So you'll be thoroughly acclimated by the time that family arrives on campus on Monday morning. You're there with your welcome signs and balloons, cheering and applauding and making that family feel welcomed and right from the get go. You'll feel at home. You'll feel like an expert. We'll make you an expert. 

Nancy: So you just need the love of Christ and a willingness to serve.

Joni: Yeah. Just the love of Jesus. You don't have to know all the difference between fancy-mancy terminology like disability differently, enabled and handicapable, motion impaired. I mean you don't have to know all the nuances of different osteogenesis, disimperfecta, Autism Spectrum Disorder. You don't have to know any of that stuff. None of it. 

All families are looking for are people who have a heart to help, a heart to serve, who are willing to listen, and just be available. Just to be there for the week, as I said, to practice a little Christianity with sleeves rolled up and give the helping hand where it helps the most. 

Nancy: And do the volunteers, you call them short-term missionaries, do they pay to come and stay at the retreat. How does that work financially?

Joni: Financially, you do have make an investment.

Nancy: Which is a privilege.

Joni: Well, that way we can keep the cost down for the families. We can make that cost as low as we possibly can. So there is some cost involved in serving as a short-term missionary, but we can provide the prospective volunteer with all kinds of "fundraising" tools. We'll provide videos, brochures.

Nancy: As if you were going on a short-term mission trip, you would be raising the support for that opportunity. 

Joni: Absolutely. That's what we call our volunteer short-term missionaries. Often college kids who want to raise their own support to come and serve at a family retreat, they'll receive helpful information and videos that they can show to their church and brochures that they can pass out.

On our website there are plenty of videos right there to give you an up-close-and-personal look, and to hear from actual volunteers. It's been fun. You hear from these short-term missionaries. The first day they arrive the camera is on them, and they are nervous. They're fidgeting and scratching their head, "Have I done the right thing? Am I supposed to be here? Oh God, what have I gotten myself into?"

They're just so anxious about what it's going to be like. "Will my gifts be suitable? Will I be able to handle this?" And by the end of the week, oh my goodness, "This is such a great time! I can't wait to get back to my friends and tell them to sign up and serve with me next year. In fact, can I sign up right now to serve next year." It's just wonderful the transformation you see in those smiles. 

Nancy: Some of them are probably really deeply impacted with their own walk with the Lord, their own heart for other people. I think it must really have a lasting impact on a lot of these volunteers.

Joni: Recently, I spoke at Dallas Baptist University. Nancy, I cannot begin to tell you. Tears flow down my eyes as I met student after student who had been serving at our family retreat in Texas, many students who had come to DBU to major in special education or in pre-med or in occupational therapy, physical therapy. They couldn't wait to tell me, "Ms. Joni, I love it!" When you're in Texas, people call you Ms. Joni. "Ms. Joni, I just want you to know that I'm going be a special ed teacher because I just fell in love with what happened at camp. I just love family retreat. I'm just so grateful that I got the vision to do what I'm doing now, because I served as a volunteer at a family retreat. Thank you for that."

Ah, nothing could thrill my heart more than to help shape the career choice of a young, energetic person whose passion about Jesus Christ and wanting to share his love in an arena and among people who often don't darken the doors of churches, who feel separated and segregated even from the mainstream of most community life. It's wonderful to see where family retreats can give a push in the right direction to so many young people who have yet to declare their majors.

Nancy: So there's different ways people can volunteer. You talked about some people coming to pray, others who serve as family assistance, or are there even other just practical ways that people can come and volunteer?

Joni: Well, there are some of our volunteers who serve alongside the staff and provide administrative support, that is needed. We have prayer teams on all of our campuses. Every family retreat has a prayer team, a very aggressive prayer team. So we invite you to come and volunteer and serve in that capacity. You can serve in the nursery. If you have lifeguarding skills, we'll assign you to a pool. Just look at your own skill level and think of a way that you can match those skills at a typical family retreat where there's lots of games, activities, lots of fun, lots of wheelchair square dancing. Let's see, what would suit you to do that, I'm not sure, but . . .

Nancy: Is the video of that on the website?                                 

Joni: I think there is. That's my favorite part. I just love the wheelchair square dancing. It's just so cool. Of course, it's unlike you'd ever done, but it is such fun to be in a square with two other people in wheelchairs and three Down Syndrome kids. It's just such a blast. 

My husband, Ken, and I, of all the things we do at Joni and Friends, and we do a lot . . . We are a complex ministry that is advancing the kingdom of Christ in every area of disability around the world, but what we love best is attending our family retreats. We always come away inspired and refreshed.

Leslie: That's Joni Eareckson Tada describing a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. As we just heard, this important ministry has a huge need for volunteers. Katie Burke has helped fill this need, so she has seen how valuable it is to invest in families during a retreat. 

Katie Burke: I grew up in a family affected by a disability. My younger brother had cerebral palsy, the kind where you don't talk and you don't walk, where you can't take care of yourself. You're completely dependent on your caregivers. So my parents have been caregivers to my brother for twenty-seven years. So I was really excited to be a part of a family retreat that was totally centered on the family and supporting the caregivers, because I know how much that means to them.

When families arrive, the first thing they see is a group of enthusiastic volunteers jumping up and down with signs, waving their arms and welcoming them to the retreat. It's an amazing sight. But when they drive in, they're looking for one sign that says their name. Because the person holding that sign is going to be a part of their family for the entire week. They're going to be that extra set of hands, a listening ear, someone to help with the load, and that actually starts right away with the volunteers helping unload their car, asking how the drive was, and if they need anything. So seeing the look on those families faces when you show up and ask how can I help, seeing the relief on their faces was an incredible gift.

I was blessed to be the buddy of Joy. Her name was Joy, and she is a lovely young woman who has Down Syndrome. And she is such a ball of energy. It was not her first retreat, although it was mine. So in some sense, she knew more people than I did. One of her favorite things to do was as she was passing others girls in the camp, she would say, "Hey, girlfriend." And they would respond back, "Hey, girlfriend." It was this little thing that expressed so much love, compassion, and affection. I learned a lot from her that week.

There was a woman who attended the retreat for the first time. She was probably in her forties, in a wheelchair, and she came to the retreat really broken. Through that week God did an amazing work in her life. At the talent show night, she sang for the first time in a long time, and she had this beautiful voice. Everyone in the crowd was weeping. It was truly a restorative, God-healing moment. Being what they call a typical sibling, meaning you have a sibling who is affected by a disability, it comes with a special set of experiences.

A few weeks after the camp, a mom at the camp emailed me to ask if I would connect with her teenage daughter who wasn't able to be at the camp. So I've counted, and we've probably gone back twenty times as email pen pals just sharing our life and our stories. She's beginning to ask some questions that I've had some particular insight to. She wrote to me, saying, "I don't meet a whole lot of people who has a sibling with disabilities. I do have one friend, but I don't see her that often. Usually when I try to talk to other people about it, they don't always get it, even though they try. It's not quite the same as having someone who's been through it, that actually can actually understand what's going on."

Those who grew up in a family affected by a disability have a unique opportunity to give back and share their experiences. They can relate with these families in a very unique and special way. 

For me personally, going to a place where there are so many families affected by disabilities, it wasn't necessarily a new experience for me since I grew up with that. It was kind of like joining a larger family where you all understand each other. That is really freeing. One of the things I think is really important for these families is to have a safe place where they ask where they can ask tough questions. Questions like: How does God allow suffering? How could this have happened to my family? For parents: How do I explain to my kids who don't have a disability, why their brother or sister is like that? What does that mean for them?

Some of these parents were asking these questions with tears in their eyes and just wanting a safe place to ask those questions, and I get that.

Being able to be used by God and giving that dose of grace to a family for a week is a really really special gift. Families affected by disabilities, they need that extra dose of grace, a hand to their shoulder and a listening ear. These family retreats provide all of that plus us as energetic volunteers to give additional support and to give them a real break from everyday stresses of life. You really feel that you're giving them a huge gift. But in return, you're the one who's blessed as well. Volunteering tends to do that. What I didn't expect at the family retreat, I didn't expect to make such great friends with other volunteers, but it makes sense. You're joined together in this intense week of serving and fellowship. When I got home, I had fifty new Facebook friends from volunteers and campers alike. 

At the end of my time at the family retreat, I was exhausted when I left, but it was a good kind of exhaustion, the kind that makes you think, "Oh yeah, I'm doing this again!"

Leslie: That's Katie Burke describing the rich experience she enjoyed at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. If you want to invest in the lives of other families who really need encouragement, would you consider doing what Katie did. Get more information on serving as a short-term missionary by visiting our website This is a valuable opportunity, so don't put off taking the next step, which is to get more information. Again, our address is

Earlier in the program we heard from Joni Eareckson Tada. She has a unique life message as someone God has used powerfully while serving him for decades as a quadriplegic. You won't want to miss hearing from Joni in person at True Woman '12: Seeking Him Together for Spiritual Awakening. We are bringing this conference to Indianapolis this September. Discounted early registration ends May 1, so get the details at

Tomorrow, Joni returns to speak with Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Here's a sample.

Joni: It's so pleasing to the Lord Jesus to see the weak, the intellectually disabled, the infirmed, nevertheless, use their platform of weakness to praise God and bless His name. That really glorifies God.

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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