sheila- unwrapping the gift

sheila-copyMy job at Joni and Friends Family Retreat is to coordinate the volunteers (Short Term Missionaries, STMs) and oversee many of the activities.  On the second to last day at camp in June of 2008, it was crazy hair day and a young teenager girl, Gabriella had hair that was amazing, she had put silk flowers in it and those metallic fuzzy wires, we used to call pipe cleaners.  She had them sticking out of her hair, twisted into the shape of hearts.

The day was a very busy one and suddenly, about 3 p.m., I saw Gabriel, sitting on a bench, eating a bowl of ice cream. “Oh!  Gabriella, I almost forgot!  You’re the winner of Crazy Hair Day!  Usually, I buy someone a milk shake but since you’re eating ice cream, how about we go in the gift shop and see what we can find?”  She liked that idea so we went in and looked around.  I gave her $5.00 as a prize and told her to pick something out.   She took her time and wondered around a bit.

I was standing near the cash register, looking at some key chains when I heard a woman named Elizabeth say to the gal at the counter, “I would like to buy a gift for my STM but I would appreciate some suggestions.”

The gal said, “Well, what is your price range?

Elizabeth replied, “Oh, there’s no price range.  What our STM has done for us this week is priceless.” I turned around and walked over to her.

“Elizabeth, I can’t tell you how much that just blessed me to over hear your conversation.”

“Oh, Kara, I can’t begin to tell you how this week has changed us.  My daughter, Sheila had a near drowning accident 32 years ago  (she has severe Cerebral Palsy because of it).  She is 34 years old now and I have learned more about her in this last week than I ever have.  She has opened her heart to me and shared things that I have never heard.  I have learned that she has spiritual gifts, something that I had never really thought about before camp.  Our STM, Jennifer, has taught us so much, we have just learned so much at this camp.  Our lives will never be the same.  Our STM also told us that she has also learned from Sheila.  She has a sister with a disability and she has learned so much about that relationship by being with Sheila.”

I stood there with tears streaming down my face as she talked, having to wipe my nose and face with my shirt!  I couldn’t believe what she was telling me, it was nearly more than I could take in, I felt like I was going to go down on my knees right there in the middle of the bookstore and praise God for what he had done.  I could not have asked for a more direct answer to our prayers.  I thought back to that first prompting of the Holy Spirit, the way He had been leading and guiding as we prepared to train the STMs beginning 8 months earlier.

“Elizabeth, are you going to share this tomorrow morning during our family share time?” I asked her.

“Oh, I won’t be able to, we have to leave tonight.”

“What time are you leaving?  Would it be possible for you to come to the STM party tonight and tell the STMs what you have just told me?”

“We’ll stay as long as we have to,” She said, “we’re in no hurry.”

“You’ve got to share this, Elizabeth.  You have got to tell the STMs what God has done.  This is amazing, this is what we have been praying for.  This is exactly what we have felt the Lord asking us to focus on this week, each camper, their spiritual gifts, what we could learn from them.”  She was more than willing to share.  I walked away with this huge feeling of awe, it was such evidence of God’s hand in such a tangible way.  “Thank you, Lord.  Thank you.”

At our STM parties, I had never brought in a camper or their family.  It was usually our chance to open up and share with one another what we had learned and experienced during camp and sometimes people shared things that would be hard to say in front of campers but I wanted to start out with Elizabeth and Sheila’s testimony and then they would be free to go and we would have our privacy afterwords but this was so important for all to hear.ms16012

Elizabeth came into the room, pushing Sheila in her wheelchair.  We all had watched throughout the week at camp, as the relationship between Sheila and her STM, Jennifer had developed.  It had taken Jennifer time to become familiar with Sheila’s speech, as even the spasticity of Sheila’s cerebral palsy affected the muscles of her tongue and it took much time for her to speak a few sentences.  Jennifer had learned that Sheila loved to worship and we had seen the two of them together, during family worship time, clasping arms, Jennifer supporting Sheila as she stood to dance.  They would work slowly across the grass field to kick the oversized soccerball together, laughing and giggling.  We had watched them both bloosom before us.

Elizabeth sat with her eyes closed, collecting her thoughts.  She had told me that it would be difficult to sum up their experiences.  She said that it was all so overwhelming and it was as though in this moment, she needed to shut out all distractions, focusing her efforts on sharing.

Through tears, she began, “I learned things I didn’t know about my daughter.  I learned things I didn’t know about me.  I realized I still have so much to learn.”  After a long pause, she continued, “I need to process this … it will take a year.  This is much, much deeper than happiness.”   I looked around the room, many STMs were in tears, her story already so moving.

One could hear a pin drop as Elizabeth expressed, “Jennifer told me Sheila has a lot inside of her … a lot to say.  Jennifer opened her heart to Sheila and invited her in.  I realized Sheila hasn’t been given a chance.  She has gifts, Jennifer helped me see that.  I’m confessing, I have a lot to learn.”  Her humility touched us all.   She turned to her 36 yr. old daughter and looked deeply into her eyes and said, “Sheila, help me.”  It literally took my breath away as I did my best to hold back the gush of tears.  Sniffles were heard throughout the room.

Facing back to the STMs, her words continued, “With my eyes I now realize, crooked is beautiful, dissonance is beautiful, that’s what God loves.  Thank you, thank you …” her voice trailed off.  “Thank you for opening my eyes to see Heaven, that’s what this camp has been.”

And as if we were transported back in time to when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, Jennifer walked across the room and sat at the foot of Sheila’s wheelchair-and the world seemed to stop revolving as they began an intimate conversation with one another in front of us.

Looking up to her, Jennifer said, “You’re my STM.”

Sheila had a lot she wanted to say, struggling to verbalize the words, not giving up.  She took a gasp of air and began, “Neeext year, I waaant youuu baaack.”

Wiping tears away, Jennifer responded, “You will never leave me.  This is just the beginning.  God brought us together.”

Sheila smiled, her bright blue eyes filled with joy, and looked up toward all the STMs.   And as she pointed with her long, slender, crooked finger towards herself, she said, “Dis caaamp touched my heaaart.”


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  1. This story revealed so much to me about love, friendship, and the amazing work God continually does in our hearts. When we turn our hearts over to Him to shape, mold, and teach… we receive such wonderful blessings. I was blessed to read this. My soul was touched. I know He planned that connection between Sheila and Jennifer to unveil how He uses this camp to affect our lives forever. God deserves all praise!

    Psalm 86:10-12 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God. Teach me your way, O LORD,that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.

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