Twin Rocks Family Retreat-for such a time as this

Cars began arriving to the cheers of the awaiting crowd of volunteers, also known as Short Term Missionaries or STMs. Each family who drove into the conference center was coming for five days of rest, refreshment and restoration. Each person who had a disability as well as young children would be given an STM, making the week a relaxing and enjoyable time for all and a week that would challenge, shape and change the lives of the STMs. Lorraine, who was new to Joni and Friends Retreats as well as the role of STM Coordinator, had spent hour upon hour matching the family members to their STMs. She handled the role like an old pro, running up to each car as it arrived, asking the family name, announcing who their STMs would be. They were quickly greeted by anywhere from one to five STMs, eager to meet them and get to know their new buddy which they would be hanging out with and assisting for up to 11 hours each day. Welcome signs were waving and people were gathered all over the campus near the entrance to the conference center, each one, excitedly awaiting their own camper’s arrival.

This would be the first Joni and Friends Family Retreat held at Twin Rocks Friends Camp at Rockaway Beach on the beautiful coastline of Oregon and yet, the feel of the camp was as though this had been going on for years. The Lord had been preparing Brent and Rachel Olstad for this time since the birth of their son, Bryce nearly 20 years earlier.

Bryce was born with spina bifida, and despite the physician’s early comments to the awaiting parents that his life would not be “viable,” God has used Bryce to change the world of the Olstad family as well as countless others. Brent and Rachel began attending Joni and Friends Family Retreats in 1996 when Bryce was just 5 years old. The Lord has been preparing them throughout the years as they have raised their son, who entered them into the community of those with disabilities, as well as their two other children, Abel and Phoebe, to be the perfect match to run a family retreat.

As the days unfolded, giggling and laughter could be heard throughout the campus. Children pushed in their wheelchairs or running and playing were experiencing freedom and overflowing joy, but not only the children, the adult STMs found themselves joining in with their innocence and free spirits. Carnivals and climbing walls, Kayaks and canoes, parachutes and parades, everything you would expect at a typical camp but this was anything but typical. This was a retreat which transformed so many lives. The lives of the families who felt loved and supported, accepted for who they are, their differences not only embraced but celebrated would most certainly be changed by this unique experience as well as the lives of their STMs. Even the staff of the conference center, from the life guards to the dining hall workers would all experience a life changing shift in their hearts and minds by what God would do and what they would participate in during this time spent together.

Out at the lake, STMs were lifting campers in and out of canoes, some were campers who had been pushed down to the beach in their wheelchairs, many who had never had this opportunity to have this type of experience before. The lifeguards observing and also joining in to help made comments about what a wonderful retreat this was, serving those with disabilities. The gals in the coffee shop so enjoyed each of the campers and the requests that they would get for what would sometimes be, very interesting coffee drinks!

Harnesses were pulled up onto people’s legs who may not ordinarily be given the chance to give the climbing wall a try and the same was true for the “Extreme Swing” which carried campers through the trees up on the mountain side.

On Circus Day, Brent dawned his polka dotted clown hat and tie, becoming the Grand Marshall, leading the line of colorfully dressed participants winding their way across the sidewalks, as if all were joining in the greatest show on earth!

The lovely scents of massage lotions filled the air as women participated in Pampering Day, complete with manicures, pedicures, new hair styles and decadent desserts. Smiles covered the faces of women who rarely get the chance to experience such a thing in their often stressed and busy lives, carrying for family members touched by disability or experiencing a disability of their own. The make-shift Spa was filled with their voices as they complimented and encouraged one another, commenting on a beautiful face which may not have worn makeup in many years or nails that were soon displaying beautiful colors.

Rachel was often seen talking to each of the families, making sure everyone was comfortable in the rooms, meeting every need, getting activities organized and overseeing events as well as an amazing staff of experienced as well as inexperienced volunteers, each coming to utilize their gifts in making all of this possible.

Each morning, the families would gather for a time of worship. Unlike any other church services, this was a time of celebrating in an unusual fashion, children filled the stage, surrounding the musicians, adding to their stringed instruments with musical instruments, colorful drums and plastic tambourines, some would sit a while at the piano, adding notes of their own. Some sang the words to the song, some sang the words that came from a place within their hearts, within their spirits, on key, off key, it didn’t matter, all were worshiping together.

The camp speaker was a seasoned Family Retreat veteran, Pastor Roy had served as an STM for several years at the Mission Springs retreat, his first camper being Bryce, who must have done a good job of breaking him in! Pastor Roy knew the vulnerability of these families, he understood the struggles and relentless exhaustion that they faced, many unable to make it to a Sunday morning church service so here at camp, he was willing to share his own weaknesses and flaws and how, in spite of his circumstances, God had shown himself a compassionate and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in love. It created an atmosphere of intimacy and vulnerability. After his time of sharing, the women would gather in small groups, a time to share their hearts, and support one another, a thing which came quite easily to most women. The men were given the opportunity to do the same and they were willing here at camp, to pour out their struggles and shortcomings, in a place that was safe and supportive.

A couples dinner, complete with dinner music and a rare opportunity to spend some time together, enabled the husbands and wives to put aside their daily responsibilities and focus on one another, many sharing that they had not had a night alone in uncountable years. The unmarried adults were given a special treat of dinner and music as well and a chance to get to know one another better.

One of the events of the week that always makes a huge impact on everyone is the Talent Show. Sometimes people hesitate to sign up, used to seeing only the most perfected of talent presented on a stage. They were gently reassured and encouraged to participate. One of the first “acts” of the evening was a woman who was asked by her STM to worship with her daughter, Gracie as their talent on stage. She came up, obviously nervous, Gracie, who has autism was wearing her cute, pink teddy bear harness which the mother held tightly to as Gracie pushed against the restraint, trying to run off the stage. “Gracie and I love to worship together and so I’d like to share with you one of our favorite songs. Would you please join in with us?” As she knelt to the floor, the music started, Gracie turning to her mother, embracing her. The two swayed to the music together, mom lifted her arms in worship, Gracie, turning back towards the audience but oblivious to them, gently waving her own arms, standing still, focusing on something we could not see. Tears ran down the cheeks of those in the audience who were privileged to be experiencing Gracie and her mother’s beautiful worship.

Another talent was an STM who brought her camper, Natalie onto the stage and demonstrated how she loved to be spun in circles in her wheelchair. The crowd went wild with applause due to the beautiful smile that arose on Natalie’s face, each person experiencing with her, the joy that she felt in those moments.

Square Dance night gave new meaning to “line dancing” and “four point star” as they were adapted to include everyone present from people who were wheelchair users to those with developmental disabilities or visual impairments. The words, “Excuse me!” and “Oh! I’m so sorry!” often filled the air as people bumped into one another, usually accompanied by much laughter.

On the final evening, the STMs spent time sharing what the week had meant to them. Some shared how through their experience at camp, the Lord had transformed their perception of those with disabilities, seeing them not just people with needs but people who had so much to give, people who we had so much to learn from. Some shared how the smallest things had brought them so much joy, like seeing their camper’s first smile or hearing the words, “I love you.” Many tears were shed as these precious moments were relived. Brent and Rachel were thanked for what they had allowed the Lord to do in and through their lives. Rachel got up and thanked the Lord for sending them their son, Bryce who was the one whom God had chosen to be the vehicle through which this had been accomplished.

On the last morning, everyone gathered for one more time of worship and celebration. The children got on stage and gave a wonderful rendition of circus acts, complete with “tigers” and “elephants” performing fantastic feats. The audience responded with wild cheering.

Next was a time for families to share what this experience at camp had meant to them.  “We had to drive many hours to get here,” shared one mother, “ and our son spent the last two hours trying to kick out the windows in the van. Then, we all got together in this worship center. During the music, he got up on stage, started banging on the piano and then, to my embarrassment, opened his bottle of water and started throwing his water everywhere!” Everyone chuckled, remembering those moments and making comments about Quinn and how he was just anointing the stage, it hadn’t bothered anyone. “All I could think was, ‘Oh no! They are going to send us home!’ But you didn’t. You’ve loved and embraced our son, you have let him be who he is and there is such freedom here. Thank you for accepting us and loving us.” There was not a dry eye.

As sharing time finished and people were saying their last goodbyes, Amanda, an STM, knelt down in front of Bryce, visibly moved by all that she had experienced at retreat. The tenderness of that moment and the impact of this young man, coming into fruition, preserved in an image which speaks volumes for all that the Lord has accomplished so far, in and through Bryce’s life. The week was nothing short of miraculous. It had been filled with God’s presence. His love had once again been extended as it tends to happen at Joni and Friends Family Retreats, like nowhere else in this earth. “A taste of heaven,” as they say. The beauty and life that God has placed within each individual had been abundantly celebrated. People came together with the intention to serve and love one another and in doing so, had put their best efforts forth in not only serving one another but serving their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and without a doubt, He was glorified.

Thank you, Brent and Rachel, thank you for leading your children, Bryce, Abel, and Phoebe down this path of self sacrifice, this path which ultimately leads to greatest fulfillment for all, including every individual who God has created as a valuable part of the body of Christ. Thank you for following as He has led, spreading this opportunity and beginning a new tradition at the conference center of Twin Rocks Friends Camp at Rockaway Beach, Oregon. For such a time as this.

Brent, Abel, Bryce, Phoebe and Rachel

Bryce was also the inspiration behind iamviable and the Olstad’s story can be viewed here:

To learn more about Joni and Friends in Oregon:

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