Just for Us!

On a Sunday morning in May 2009, a devastated Regina Garriott walked out of church in the middle of the service. That morning she listened as both kids and adults spoke glowingly of how their church camp experiences had made Jesus even more real to them. The mother of twin girls with autism, Garriott was crushed by the thought that going away to camp would never be a reality for her daughters.

“There was no way John and I could see it happening with Ashley and Rebecca’s dietary restrictions, medications and other issues,” Garriott said. “I didn’t see how I’d feel good about sending them away for a weekend. I envisioned we’d be getting a call [to come pick them up] at 8:00 the first evening. It just seemed like a huge impossibility.”

A month later a new Young Life Capernaum ministry was born in Garriott’s town of Orange, Calif. Having learned about Young Life’s ministry with kids with disabilities from a pastor at the church, she called the Capernaum director, Kara Kawanami. “Kara was just so positive about meeting Ashley and Rebecca,” Garriott remembered about the interaction. This passion reaffirmed Garriott’s decision to have her daughters check out the group.

While Garriott admits the twins, aged 14, were a little nervous to try something new, their apprehensions melted away as the girls embraced the fun, games and club talks wholeheartedly. They also warmed up to the leaders pretty quickly. “It was such an overwhelmingly incredible experience to go to Capernaum club,” Garriott said, “because there were all these incredible volunteers who couldn’t wait to meet our kids and tell them how much Jesus loves them. That meant so much to us.

“They were so excited because they found a place where they fit, where people were not just tolerating them but loving them. It’s really incredible because so often you see your kids sitting on the side and sometimes people are very neutral toward them. They may not be as accepting or engaging because it’s a little more work to build a relationship with someone who doesn’t respond the same way their typical peers will.”

By the end of their first Capernaum meeting the sisters were asking, “When’s the next one? We want to come back!”

No problem!

The girls quickly became regulars at Capernaum, making it to every club that fall. When they heard the group would be attending a winter weekend at Oakbridge (Young Life’s camp in Southern California), there was no question about whether they wanted to go.

Their mom, however, wasn’t on board just yet. “The next thing I hear is that there’s a winter camp and we already know the camp thing isn’t going to work,” Garriott laughed. “I told Kara the questions I had and explained about all the different situations that might come up and she just kept responding, ‘No problem! No problem!’”

Kawanami said, “Regina was a little reluctant, but she wanted to give her daughters the experience.” The step of faith paid off — Ashley and Rebecca loved the weekend at Oakbridge. Rebecca would often say, “I cry when I think about camp because I miss it so much!”

“Regina and John were blown away that their girls could attend camp on their own, something they thought impossible six months ago,” Kawanami said.

The trip also marked the first time in 14 years the couple had sent the girls off by themselves. Garriott remembered, “John and I looked at each other and said, ‘Wow! What do we do? Our girls aren’t here!’ Childcare is difficult and we don’t tend to have many date nights but this trip provided us with a date weekend! It was really special.”

Amazing place

After returning from Oakbridge, it came as no surprise when Ashley and Rebecca proclaimed, “We can’t wait to go to summer camp!” The first ones to sign up, the twins were counting down the days to camp months in advance.

This time the Garriotts sent them off to Young Life’s Lost Canyon in Arizona without any reservations. They knew the leaders would care for the twins and all of their medical and dietary needs.

“Someone even provided a scholarship,” Garriott said, “which was very helpful, because when you have children with special needs, life can be very financially taxing with the extra expenses.”

Arriving at camp, the girls were not disappointed. That week Ashley constantly exclaimed, “This place is amazing!” while Rebecca marveled, “I can’t believe this camp was made just for me!” From riding on the swing to swimming in the pool to enjoying God, His love and His beautiful creation, the girls were beside themselves with joy, Kawanami said. Both Ashley and Rebecca happily announced, “We had the best week of our lives here!”

Ambassadors

While Young Life Capernaum has inspired Ashley and Rebecca’s faith, their involvement has also changed the group. “The Garriott family has become Young Life’s biggest fan in the area,” Kawanami said. “They’ve really talked up Capernaum and that’s helped our group grow. They’re great ambassadors for us in the church and the community!”

When asked what she would tell other parents of kids with disabilities when considering Capernaum, Garriott quickly responded, “Just do it! This is not just a place to drop your kids off — this is a place where people are passionate about showing the love of Jesus to your child. They’re actively going out of their way and seeking your child. It’s so worth it. It’s something that every teen with a disability should give a chance. What a huge opportunity — I would hate for them to miss out on that.”

“I’ve seen a lot more joy in Ashley and Rebecca now. They see it’s OK to be a Christian. This is where they belong and where they have a sense of community. Capernaum gives them something to look forward to and I think every kid needs that.”

For more information about Young Life Capernaum, please go to capernaum.younglife.org.