The best time of the year for Donnie Wiltshire and Judy Autry comes during the five annual Happiness Retreats.
“There is just a touch of heaven at Happiness,” said Wiltshire, special ministries consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC).
“That is because our campers bring an atmosphere that is full of love, does not judge people based on outward appearance, has a terrific child-like faith, and is just plain happy.”
Autry, team leader assistant for information technology & services at the BSC, has been directing the Happiness Retreats for 17 years.
She considers the gatherings “a big family reunion.”
With four more Happiness Retreats in July and August at Caraway Conference Center near Asheboro, Autry said the camp for developmentally disabled people offers community for those who participate.
One Happiness Retreat already occurred at Truett Camp in Hayesville. That one is the smallest of the five events and requires about 20 volunteers. The retreats at Caraway usually involve about 40 volunteers. Some of the volunteers have been helping for more than 30 years.
At a Happiness Retreat, Autry said the participants “can be themselves. Their love for the Lord bubbles out. It’s so wonderful to see folks excited about God.”
Autry’s brother and a nephew have experienced mild disability so Autry has “spent my life watching my parents and my sister-in-law make sure they got the best education and were accepted in the community and churches.”
Her brother, who resides in heaven, “loved to pray and would pray from his heart,” she said. Her whole family – her husband and even her 15-year-old grandson – has been involved with the retreat. Her son and daughter-in-law were involved until they moved to Vermont. “It is a ministry my family is very passionate about,” she said.
Autry believes churches should provide a place for everyone to be able to worship as a family. She learned this in her family as she was being raised but she also sees it in her church, First Baptist Church in Sanford. The retreat attracts family members and paid caregivers. Autry said Bible study and training is offered to family members and other caregivers at the retreats.
Happiness Retreats began in 1974 with a group of about 50 people. Today, the largest camp attracts 850 participants.
Wiltshire added that some of the attendees include group homes, many of which return year after year.
“They love the environment,” he said. “It is so loving and joyful that everyone wants to return.”
Autry shared about a young man who was in a car accident. He suffered a brain injury which put him in a wheelchair. He surprised everyone by standing by himself and singing.
“His mom was blown away with tears of joy,” she said. “She did not know he could stand at all. His therapist had been working on it, and he wanted to surprise all of us during worship. The congregation went wild with excitement and joy.”
Calling the Happiness Retreats the “flagship” event for people with developmental disabilities, Wiltshire said the BSC typically holds an adult worker training in the area of special needs each year and a day camp event at Campbell University each spring.
“Every year I learn from our campers more about what it means to be a follower of Christ,” he said. “The campers teach me great spiritual lessons even when they are not intending to do this. Happiness Retreat is one of my absolute favorite things to do.”
Wiltshire, who consults with churches about special needs ministry, said a special needs night during a Campbell basketball game next season is in the planning stages.
While registration has closed for the camps, a few late registrations will be accepted.
With two persons in a room, the cost runs $175 per person; three people in a room costs $170 each; and four costs $165 per person.