Jumonville ministry camp caters to special-needs families

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 5:42 p.m.

There are many camps that offer programs for specific disabilities. But the camp offered at the Jumonville Camping and Retreat Center from July 28 through Aug. 1 may be the only one of its kind in the nation.

The Joni and Friends Ministry camp, having just completed its sixth year, offers families with disabled members, no matter what the disabilities are, a chance for all of the members of the families to enjoy special activities. They address problems that affect the families. For example, 80 percent of the marriages may end in divorce.

The camp provides for the campers' special needs while offering support and friendship as well as a break for the usual caregivers. And the camp offers another advantage. Those with disabilities find they are not the subjects of other people staring and asking questions.

Joni Eareckson Tada, now 64, has experienced firsthand the problems associated with a severe disability. At the age of 17, she became paralyzed in an accident when she jumped from a platform in a lake into water that was too shallow. After fighting through the thoughts of suicide and despair, she found that her faith as a Christian helped her change the focus of her life. Recently, she also survived a bout with cancer.

Tada was not at the camp on July 31, but her organization was. The Joni and Friends Ministry she founded serves people around the world. Staff members at Jumonville were more than capable of providing a caring and supportive atmosphere.

According to volunteer Carol Stewart of Uniontown, the camp serves about 260 people from 34 families.

STM (Short-Term Missionaries) volunteers, who are at least 17 years old, are grouped with the families. Younger volunteers, called buddies, are paired with young individuals with handicaps to provide help moving around the camp and with problems they may have with picking up items with their hands.

While the camp has a Christian focus, it is nondenominational. Volunteers pay their own way to the camp. The cost is $385 for the five-day session, which includes their sleeping facilities and meals.

Margaret Yauger, 31, of Uniontown, a single mom, was at the camp for the second year in a row with her son, James Bowers, 4. The cost for her and her son to attend the camp was covered by the Kiwanis Club in Uniontown. Yauger suffers from cerebral palsy.

“This is really a great place for us,” said Yauger. “The really great part is to be able to get out of the house.”

Yauger and her son were with her STM Krystal Shaarda on July 31. Krystal's daughter, Ashley, was volunteering as a buddy for James.

Tammy DiDominic, 54, of Brownsville, was at the camp with her daughter, Haleigh Sommers, 18.

“This is a week of normal for Haleigh,” said Tammy, who added Haleigh will be a senior at Brownsville Area High School.

Tammy said the students do not pick on Haleigh in school. But, “she's different.”

Friends in school may not call and offer to take Haleigh to the mall with them, simply because they do not have vehicles that are able to handle her wheelchair, for example.

Many of the staff members at the camp are from churches in Ohio. Donna Hughes is one. Hughes said the camp takes special care so that no individual volunteer is ever left alone with an individual. Safety is paramount. There is a medical doctor who attends who suffers from a disability. There are also a number of nurses.

Often, families break up because of the stresses involved with the problems of the disabled. The camp focuses on the families, providing time for the needs of family members. Fathers break off and spend time with other men in groups. Mothers have time to join with other moms, to be pampered, to have a break. Siblings have a chance to have others focus on their needs.

There are also activities that are shared by all family members. One example is the ice cream social on the first day.

On Tuesday, the women attending the camp were pampered by students from Laurel Business Institute in Uniontown.

Families also receive gift bags during their stay.

Volunteer Deb Peterman said she became involved because her younger brother has problems. Peterman spoke of how it affected family members. Even going to church was a problem for her family. The fear among church members was that her brother would become disruptive. She has now learned how to provide an environment that allows those with disabilities to join in with worship while addressing their needs for a safe, supportive environment.

“We want churches to be doing what churches should be doing,” Peterman told a small group of volunteers.

Hughes not only works with members of her own church, she has gone to El Salvador where the organization is helping people of that culture understand that those with disabilities should be supported by those around them, they can also be productive members of the society. Close to 10 percent of the people in El Salvador had a disability.

The organization has also provided support for those with handicaps, donating wheelchairs and teaching people there how to adjust and repair the chairs and provide access to schools and other facilities.

Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kpolacek@tribweb.com or 724-626-3538.

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