There are more than 50 million Americans with disabilities. But, as Charlie Chivers notes, not a single one of them is disabled in their spirit. And, just like the rest of us, they need the Lord, and they want to be loved.
“Every human being has the capacity to know God and interact with Him. That’s the part of our creation that cannot be disabled that attaches us to God: our spirit,” says Chivers, a Christian missionary who, with wife Debbie, founded the interdenominational Special Touch Ministry in 1982.
Special Touch Ministry began with one summer camp in Wisconsin, specifically tailored to people of all ages with disabilities. Thirty-five years later, the nonprofit organization has weeklong Summer Getaway camps in nearly a dozen states, serving thousands of adults and children with intellectual and physical disabilities. Special Touch also teaches churches to be disability friendly and offers training resources so Christians can do a better job of reaching, loving, and serving the almost 20 percent of the U.S. population that has a disability.
As many as 80 percent of Americans with disabilities do not attend church anywhere, statistics show, said Kerry Mauldin of Mauldin Ministries. The Oklahoma-based missionary organization’s outreach includes speaking at Special Touch’s Oklahoma, Illinois, and Arizona camps for the last 20 years, and, for the last four years, distributing free Kerusso Christian T-shirts to the guests at the camps where they minister.
“Four years ago, Kerusso sent us shirts for the guests that featured a lightbulb on the front, and at camp, we were talking in chapel with the physically-disabled campers about David in the Bible,” Mauldin explained recently. “We were discussing David spending a lot of time in his cave, and how to get out of the caves of life and overcome challenges. It was such a powerful emphasis that day – that how to overcome the fear of the dark, cave-like challenges of life, is through the light of Jesus.
“When we handed out those shirts, you could see it sinking in with those folks – many of whom are wheelchair-bound – that they don’t have to spend their lives hiding in a cave. I told them, ‘You be the light of the world.’ You could see them thinking ‘Hey, I can do this,’” he recounted.
“A lot of times for people with disabilities, it’s so easy to worry about what others are thinking about you,” Mauldin noted. “Sometimes you have to sort of just think, ‘Suck it up, buttercup,’ but what we all have to realize that it’s Christ in us that will draw people to us. This is what I shared with those campers. With Christ in you, everyone won’t look past you or look away because of your disability. When the light of Jesus is shining through you, you make contact, you have a smile on your face, you say hello and you put them ease—and it’s all Christ working through you.”
Since that first time Mauldin handed out the Kerusso shirts, he’s given out hundreds more donated shirts each year; he says it’s the guests’ favorite souvenir from their camp experience. But the most important thing they can take home with them, Mauldin adds, is their new, or renewed, relationship with Christ. Although most of the campers have been exposed to Christian teaching, many live in group homes in “very challenging situations” and don’t personally know the Lord. Mauldin said he has seen countless campers, as well as caretakers who sometimes come with the group home residents, turn to Christ for their salvation while at camp.
Chivers says that’s exactly why Special Touch exists.
“We deal with spiritual questions and the heart of man, to minister to the spirit that is not disabled in anyway shape or form,” Chivers explains. “Many people with disabilities—just like those without—respond to the heart of God; they want to know God, they want to love God, and they want to serve God. The church needs to be prepared to teach them and train them and love them just like everyone else.”
Teaching Christians how to actively, effectively, and intentionally love and minister to people with disabilities—in the precise ways in which those with disabilities need to be loved and ministered to—is Special Touch’s primary mission. The organization’s work comes in their summer camps; resources and certifications for churches to learn how to better reach and serve the disabled; regional fellowship meet-ups for the disabled and those who serve and care for them; and more recently, a budding partnership with Tim Tebow Foundation’s annual Night To Shine.
Night To Shine began a few years ago as Tebow and his foundation organized several adult proms for those with disabilities. Each attendee is treated like a king or queen, is escorted through the front door via red carpet amid cheering supporters and volunteers, and is loved on and ministered to in a way most have never experienced, Tebow has said. This year on Valentine’s Day, the Night To Shine event grew to 375 events hosted by churches in all 50 states and 11 countries, supported by 150,000 volunteers serving 75,000 guests with disabilities.
The Special Touch Getaway Camps are some of the largest faith-based disability retreats in the country; they include housing, worship services, Bible teaching, and tons of recreational activities that are tailored specifically to either the intellectually or the physically disabled. There are also evening chapel services that are for everyone at camp to come together to worship, learn, and fellowship, Chivers said.
“For example, we have three different chapel sessions each morning, each one tailored to different functionality levels,” he noted. “We make camp a lot of fun every day, with activities they normally wouldn’t be offered anywhere else.”
Counselors at the Special Touch camps are trained caregivers, volunteers with a faith-based perspective who are from many different denominations and frequently are part of mission teams from churches nationwide. Teens also volunteer to assist but don’t serve as “full-fledged caregivers,” Chivers said.
“Lots of youth groups use our camps as a mission trip; they pay to come and help staff the camps, and while they’re here they are mentored in ministering to the disabled,” he explained. “Trained adult caregivers teach them the ropes and how to care for those with disabilities, and we have a caregiver coach who teaches them two classes a day.
“The camps are a bright spot that guests very much look forward to each year; but the guests’ families also are ministered to, one way or another,” Chivers said.
“We also provide opportunities for families with disabilities, if the whole family wants to come and stay, and we offer programming and activities also tailored to them,” he said. “But a majority of families will use the week as a respite and enroll their disabled family member to be cared for by us for the week. It is, indeed, an enormous and much-needed gift for all involved.”
The sister of a Special Touch camper had this to say on a Yelp review about the service that the ministry provides:
“I have a brother who has special needs; he is mentally handicapped. He has been going to their camp for three summers now, and it is the best thing ever,” she wrote. “It not only benefits him greatly; it helps us to have a little downtime. The counselors are fantastic with all the campers, and I love the fact that the camp is faith-based. It is the best camp that we have ever found, and Mark looks forward to it every year. Thank you, Special Touch Ministry!”
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