Taking the Plunge

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Young Life has been actively welcoming people with disabilities at club, Campaigners and camp since 1986. A Young Life leader in California, Nick Palermo, had a vision to create a place where teenagers with disabilities could expand their boundaries, enlarge their lives and experience the love of Jesus. This was Young Life Capernaum.

Most of the time, Capernaum looks like having unscheduled friendship around the gospel. “It’s hanging out with my really good friends and talking about stuff that matters,” said Candace Conglose, full-time Capernaum staff associate in Memphis. “It’s just doing life together, from the really exciting stuff to the everyday and hard stuff.” But, sometimes, it looks like a week away from home where anything seems possible.

“Kids with disabilities have been going to Young Life camp for a lot of years,” said Pam Harmon, vice president of Capernaum. “But Nick had this idea — wouldn’t it be great if we brought 100 kids with disabilities, 100 able-bodied teenagers, and 100 leaders to a camp where we thought through the schedule and the message, and created a camp that was on-purpose for our Capernaum friends?” The first Capernaum Camp materialized at Crooked Creek in 2006, and kids with disabilities all over the country have been experiencing their own best week, personalized for them, ever since.

Adaptability

For traditional kids, camp is an awesome experience that takes them out of their routine and into a week of crazy activities and a distilled gospel encounter. Most of our friends with disabilities have never been away from home, even for a night, unless they’ve been with family. In fact, the prospect is often scary for both parents and kids. At Capernaum Camp, we take our friends out of their everyday and bring them to a place where they can trust they’ll be loved, cared for and heard. Then we give them an adventure like they’ve never dreamed.

“We take the Young Life camp schedule,” said Harmon, “and we adapt it for what works best for our friends with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Club happens in the morning, when everyone is fresh and awake. Campers head to cabin time right after club so they can process the verbal proclamation of the gospel in small groups, with their leaders utilizing hands-on activities crafted to employ all their senses.

Mealtimes are longer. “The leader is often feeding many of their friends,” explained Harmon, “and we don’t want them to feel rushed.” Going to someone’s house for dinner or out to a restaurant with friends isn’t a common occurrence in our friends’ lives. “We make mealtime at camp extra long because teens with disabilities aren’t often invited to a meal around a table with other teenagers and adults who are their friends; not paid professionals, not their therapist, not their mom or brother. We’re friends.”

Then there’s the adventure. Whether it’s the ropes course, climbing wall, giant swing, waterslide, mountain climbing, horseback riding or swimming, to name a few, every Young Life camp has found a way to make unscheduled fun happen for every kid of every ability. “If our friends want to do it, we figure out a way,” said Harmon. And in a safe, creative, thoughtful way. At Carolina Point, one of the most popular activities involves driving. At home, driving is usually not an option, but at a few of our camps, kids with disabilities can get behind the wheel of a go-kart for a thrilling taste of what most of us take for granted every day.

At camp, our friends are accompanied by their leaders and able-bodied teenagers, or “buddies.” Buddies are usually part of Capernaum club back at home; these are kids who have chosen to be a part of Capernaum for a variety of reasons. “Some just choose Young Life Capernaum as their expression of Young Life,” said Harmon. “When an able-bodied high school kid comes to Capernaum club, they get to be the hero, have responsibility, and be loved and accepted for who they are. There aren’t a lot of places one can have the gift of that experience.” These high schoolers spend time at camp alongside our friends with disabilities and, as a result, learn more about Jesus through their friends. After their friends go to bed around 9 p.m., camp has worship time, a message based on processing their day and some fun activities for buddies, in order to care for the kids who have been helping to care for Capernaum campers all day.

It Just Clicked

Candace Conglose has been hanging out with her friends for about three years, and according to her, Capernaum Camp is the best! “We do life together for a week straight. My favorite thing is the shared experience. I learned the most about my friends at camp, and they probably learned the most about me too.”

One of Conglose's friends, Julia, almost didn’t go to camp. With a myriad of intense dietary needs, compounded by gall bladder surgery, she and her parents were extremely hesitant to send her to Carolina Point in North Carolina. Conglose connected them with the camp kitchen, who put together a menu, sent the menu to Julia’s parents beforehand and worked with them to bring Julia the best week possible, for her.

After arriving at camp, Julia was determined to jump off the diving board at the pool. Since she was using crutches most of the time to get around, this was huge for her. “I’ve jumped off the diving board a thousand times,” said Conglose, “but her legs work differently than mine. To see her jump off of something into water without fear and experience what every other kid gets to do was really cool.”

But the coolest thing about Julia’s week at Carolina Point was when she told Conglose the gospel “just clicked” for her. “It was really sweet,” said Conglose. “We don’t always get to hear that in Capernaum. Some of our friends don’t use words to express anything, so we have to trust that the Holy Spirit is doing the work. Camp was a game changer for her.” On the way home on the bus, Conglose glanced back and Julia was 120 pages deep into the new Bible every friend received at camp. When they got back, she told all her friends who couldn’t go about her time at camp and read that same Bible to her friends in Campaigners.

“I feel really grateful to be a little part of Julia’s story in meeting Jesus,” said Conglose. “It’s really sweet to look back on all the people who came alongside me and did whatever possible to get me to the feet of Jesus, and then to do that for someone else. It’s been such an honor that her parents would trust me, that they see something different in Young Life Capernaum and trust us enough to take their ‘heart’ away to camp for a week.”