justin-a much needed reminder


When our families come to Joni and Friends camp, they are given a buddy for each person with a disability.  That buddy is called a, Short Term Missionary or STM for short.  The second time Justin, his mother and sister came, we partnered Justin with an STM who had come to camp several times with his own family, his mother having childhood onset polio.  Walter now a teenager, often came to serve another family on his own as an STM.

Walter is very quiet and shy with a tender heart for the Lord.  The first year that he came as an STM, we had given him a pretty easy camper but now, we felt that he was ready for someone who would be more of a challenge so we paired him up with Justin.

Justin was 17 and weighed about 230 pounds.  He has Angelman’s Syndrome which involves; developmental delay which is functionally severe, speech impairment, minimal use of words, a balance disorder and also an unusual  trait of frequent laughing, smiling and a happy demeanor.  Developmentally, Justin functions at the level of about a three year old.

The first year I met Justin, he got out of the car and went down on the pavement, crying and swinging his arms, obviously very upset but not able to verbally express why.   The young woman that we had partnered him with looked up at me as if to say, “What do I do now?”  I came over to quietly reassure her.  “Don’t worry, it’s the first day, lots of changes for him, we’ll get you help if you need it.”  Many campers are confused when they first arrive, not knowing why they are here in this strange place, schedules turned upside down, lots of people cheering  and waving banners as their cars arrive.

Justin’s mom was right there, talking with Justin, getting him up.  She took him to their room to rest for a bit.  Once she had gotten him there, he had thrown up and she realized that Justin had not been feeling well because of the car trip up the windy road.  He immediately turned into a happy camper once the symptoms of the car sickness wore off.  From then on, he was very content being pushed around in a wheelchair and interacting with people.

When Justin’s family arrived at camp this time, Justin had no symptoms of car sickness and came out smiling.  Walter wasn’t sure at first, how to communicate with Justin.  I told Walter to enjoy him!  Just do whatever Justin loves to do, take him for walks and hang out.  It took a bit of an adjustment for Walter to get used to interacting with another teenager in such a way, caring for him, helping to cut up his food, getting him back up to his feet when he would fall down, handling this young man as a child.

Very quickly, Walter found out that Justin loved to give “noogies”, rubbing everyone’s head with his knuckles and then having people respond back, giving him a noogie as well.  Soon, we all were learning the routine that Justin enjoyed.  He would to point to his old booboos and wait for people say, “Owie!” and then respond by give him a few moments of sympathy, some of us kissing the well healed boo-boo.  Then he would want to exchange noogies, point to the picture that was on his t-shirt and have people call out the appropriate, “Sponge Bob!” or “Hamburger!”  He would laugh with great joy as we all responded and spent just a few minutes of our time with him.

As the days went on, I would aften see the two of them, strolling along together, Justin would give Walter a noogie and then lean his head over for Walter to give him a noogie as well, Justin bursting out with his precious, contagious laugh every time.

At camp, everyone stopped when they walked by Justin.  His face would beam as he’d hold out his fist, and then he would burst out with that laughter of his.  We all enjoyed it just as much as Justin.  The simplicity of that act, the simplicity of the joy, stirred someplace that needed to be stirred deep within all of our hearts.  People took the time to do the smallest of things with Justin, that was all that he asked for.

My daughter, Stephanie happened to be at camp that year and said to me at one point, “Mom, I’ve learned something this week.  People with disabilities not only need to be loved, they also need to give love.  I guess I never really thought about the importance of that before.”

The connection which was made between Justin and Walter became undeniable as the two teenage boys walked around together, often hand in hand.  That’s not something you would normally see out in the “real world”  which is scripted by the accepted social norms of personal space and tough exterior which had all been removed, here at Joni and Friends camp and what remained was the freedom to behave once again, as a child.  In our “grown up years” when we are expected to be acting out of our learned maturity, it was so very refreshing, so restorative to be reminded of our own need to be loved in the simpliest of ways, one of which we found to be, the giving and receiving of a noogie.


Leave a Comment