SOPHIA — By the time the third camper took the microphone to sing “Amazing Grace” it came as no surprise that the tune would probably sound nothing like the old familiar hymn, or that words would be forgotten. Yet, to those listening the truth of those words tasted just as sweet, as if hearing them for the first time as a new believer in Jesus Christ and savoring the thought that Christ rescued sinners from death and called them to walk in his marvelous light.
The people who sing of this precious redemption sit in wheelchairs and move with walkers; some cannot see and some cannot hear, others have developmental disabilities, and one uses two crutches except on stage when a chaperone holds his arm to keep him steady.
The talent show at Happiness Retreat, a retreat for adults with disabilities, is special. One after another the campers come, some running to the stage before the person ahead of them has even a minute to bask in the applause.
Campers sing loud and proud with no fear. Campers and staff cheer and applaud as though they sat front row center at a concert for their favorite band. When someone stumbles over their words the crowd picks it up and joins in the song. One man, a drummer in a Hawaiian shirt who earlier helped lead worship, is smiling, but his face is red and even looking at him from across the room he seems to be holding back tears. The faces of other staff tell the same story. Their hearts are so full they cannot contain their joy.
The talent show at Happiness Retreat is a remarkable evening when people are truly accepted and loved for who they are. Happiness Retreats are annual three-day events sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. They began in 1974 for anyone with disabilities. This year one retreat was held at Truett Camp and four others at Caraway Conference Center and Camp. More than 900 campers and chaperones attended this year.
From worship and Bible study to arts and crafts, these retreats, on paper, look much like a mini Vacation Bible School in any local church. The difference is that these retreats are intentional about making sure each camper, no matter their disability, participates.
Being intentional comes in the simple things. Patience and explaining things multiple times. Walking up and down the lunch line to talk with campers. Doing sign language to the words of a song or Bible story and helping a camper decorate his starfish during arts and crafts — even if he can’t see. Sitting down next to campers, looking them straight in the eye and asking if they are having a good time.
Volunteers learn they can make a difference in a life with even the smallest of loving acts. Seemingly insignificant acts of compassion lead to such a memorable experience that campers look forward to these three days all year and are asking if they can come back even before this year’s retreat ends.
More than kitchen help
Table to table he goes, taking empty lunch trays and refilling glasses. Standing at the front of the line to return trays he sorts the silverware into the proper dishes and tells the campers to leave the plates right there — he’ll finish cleaning them. “He thinks it’s his job,” said Eddie Brackett’s wife Hilda.
Eddie Brackett never just walks into a room. He might think that’s all he is doing, but after 20-plus years of Brackett volunteering at Happiness Retreats, staff and campers know better. Brackett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Wendell, stops at nearly every table in the dining hall and gives a hug or a pat on the back.
Brackett treasurers the time he spends with campers. “They are genuine,” he said, unlike most people without a disability who “put up a good front.”
Brackett rejoices with campers when they show a desire to trust in Jesus as their Savior, and he has baptized campers. He weeps with family and friends during times of sorrow and has officiated funerals for campers.
Brackett is just one volunteer who keeps coming back. Most retreat staff is volunteers from Baptist churches who have served at the retreats for many years and make the week feel like a reunion. It has also become a family tradition where mom, dad and the kids all serve together.
Patsy Koutsogeorgas is a 30-year volunteer who remembers a time when Happiness Retreat was one day and only had about six campers. “Something in my spirit,” she said, is what got her involved with special ministries. When Koutsogeorgas started volunteering she did not know special ministries would come so close to home. Her sister has a child with a heart defect, her nephew has a child with a learning disability and her daughter has a child with a brittle bone disorder.
Yet, with challenges and often grief comes immeasurable joy. “You find what beautiful attributes these people have,” she said. “They’ve taught me so much about being real. And what true love is all about.”