A Colo man with a passion for church, children, foster care and social work; a Polk City author who writes about kids with special needs; and a Boone woman who worked at a special needs camp and parented children with special needs, are three people, along with many others, who earlier this month took part in something fantastic.
It was a camp — the Wonderfully Made Family Camp — that is the brainchild of the Boone woman, Naomi Norris, 56.
“Some years ago, I started working at a special needs camp in Latvia each summer. I came home to Iowa burdened for the families in my community and felt convicted to start a similar camp here,” Norris said.
Jolene Philo, 60, of Polk City, who has written five books about parenting kids with special needs and about special needs inclusion in churches, was excited about Norris’ vision and said “yes” when Norris asked her to serve on the planning committee/board of the camp.
“I’ve been praying for a long time for something like this,” Philo said, “but I knew I couldn’t spearhead the project.” With Norris willing to take on the camp’s leadership, Philo said she was able to “come alongside and contribute to this wonderful cause.”
Kim Combes, 59, of Colo, was told about the camp by a friend of his from Cornerstone Church, and when he discovered that his college friend Philo was involved, he joined the team.
“Wonderfully Made Family Camp is designed to provide a weekend away for families with a child or children with special needs,” Combes explained. “We know that spending time (away) together as a family is invaluable, and that doing so may be more difficult for special needs families as one considers the concerns beyond those of other families, like added financial burdens, medical needs, accessibility worries, behavioral issues …,” he said.
This year’s Wonderfully Made Camp was held earlier this month at the Hidden Acres Christian Center near Dayton, the same place as the first-ever camp like this was held last June. Last year, 28 families were selected for the initial camp launching; this year, the planning committee was able to finance and open the camp to 40 families.
The opportunity to take part in the camp, according to Combes and others who serve on the planning committee, happens mostly by word of mouth and church connections with people involved.
“This year … the spots were filled very quickly, and we did have some returning families,” Combes said. “We have set a general rule that we will allow a certain percentage of previous campers to join for a maximum of two years in a row.” The goal, however, is to continue to offer the opportunity to many new families each year, too.
Michael Ciccotti of Ames, and his wife Samantha, have been fortunate to get to experience the camp both of its first two years. The couple has three sons, ages 5, 3 and 2. Their youngest suffers from cerebral palsy, which affects his large motor skills and his speech.
“For me … last time, Joel was only 1, so he didn’t really look or behave a lot different than other kids … so I didn’t connect as much, but this year, I really loved that I had a place where it was safe to talk about my experiences in having a disabled child … that there are people who can share the pain and the grief of things that are lost when dealing with these situations,” he said.
Combes said the emotional sharing by parents that goes on at the camp is incredible to witness. He’s had the honor of leading some of the groups and small group discussions with the men. Men and women have chances for splitting into like-gender groups to talk about what they face as dads and moms. “It was apparent to me the bonding of guys was happening in a relatively short period of time,” Combes said, noting that he’s watched grown men cry and hug each other as they share their burdens.
Philo helped with the women’s time, saying she also has watched moms connect and comfort one another as they told their stories.
One of the neatest things about the camp is that it provides a one-on-one mentor for every disabled child. These are people from churches and communities, who volunteer to care for the children during the entire day, up until about 8:30 at night, giving parents and the other siblings in the family their own time for recreation and activities, groups, etc. All volunteers go through a background check and fill out a profile, so their unique skills and abilities can be better matched to each child.
Cicotti said that his family became deeply connected to the volunteer who mentored his son last year. They now do things throughout the year together and that same volunteer, also from Ames, had their son at the camp again this year.
From the time one camp ends, to the time the next camp begins, committee members begin fundraising again to be able to offer the camp to as many families as possible, all free of charge.
Combes said, “For example, in April, we sponsored a 5K run at Saylorville. HyVee and Fareway have donated food and drink items. Many churches and private donors have given to supplement our cause. We raised approximately $34,000 since last year’s event to cover this year’s event,” he said.
Philo said other fundraisers have included an auction and a concert.
Ciccotti, who 15 or so years ago worked as a camp counselor at Hidden Acres, said he’s amazed at some of the changes the camp has made to accommodate the physical and mental disabilities that the campers coming for Wonderfully Made Camp have. “Last year, someone donated (funding) to pave a lot of the camp trails and put in a wheelchair lift so this (camp) could happen,” he said.
The fact that the camp is free to families isn’t so much about having the money or not having it to attend, for Ciccotti. He said what means most to him is that people care enough to make sure the camp is free and therefore stress-free. “It’s really meaningful to us that people care this much,” he said.
Christin Lantz, of West Des Moines, who serves on the camp’s board, said she likes that there is something new each year to make the camp stand out. “This year, we had a whole extra day which allowed us to put together a carnival with bounce houses, a dunk tank, face painting, games and treats. We also were able to bless a few children by giving them a hot air balloon ride this year,” she said.
Moms were also treated to some really special things this year, like a spa retreat with facials, pedicures and massages.
Overall, the camp leaves everyone involved, from volunteers to board members to campers, feeling renewed and inspired.
“I was adrenaline-pumped from Thurday morning when I arrived at camp to when I got home on Sunday afternoon,” Combes said. “Getting to know new friends and fellowshipping with those I met last year was awesome. The level of vulnerability shared over four days got intense, but strong, new relationships were forged as a result.”
Combes was also gratified to see many young people (who volunteered) give their time and energy to total strangers. “That was a real high for me. My church, Cornerstone of Zearing, had nine young people actively participate in ministering to these families and children. I was immensely proud of them…”
Philo said God has placed it on her heart to share His love and light with every person she meets. About Wonderfully Made Family Camp, she said, “I am rewarded by the interactions I get to have with each of the kids that are in attendance and the relationship development I get to witness between the parents and volunteers.”
Norris is pleased with what this camp she dreamed about and spearheaded has been able to do in its first two years of existence.
“My husband and I are both committed to making this camp successful for years to come. My personal goal,” Norris said, “is to give hope to struggling families and see them laughing and enjoying each others’ families.”