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Joni Eareckson Tada shares joy through unique retreats

by James Freeman

She’s received presidential praise for her advocacy for disabled individuals, her founding of a well-known organization, and her melodic voice. She’s received hearty applause when speaking to thousands around the world. She’s received awards for several of her more than 30 books, her radio program, and her outstandingly courageous life. She’s received five honorary degrees. She’s received praise for her detailed fine art paintings, crafted without the use of her hands.

But it was Who she received that truly made a difference for Joni Eareckson Tada. Before television appearances or accolades, a session at camp and an encounter with God pivoted her life into position to one day use the outdoors to spread a message of hope to those who face some of life’s biggest obstacles.

Seeing Heaven
In 1964, as a 15-year-old, Joni began attending a Bible study. She reflects in her autobiography, The God I Love (Zondervan, 2003), “I not only felt my soul’s capacity stretch; I sensed something filling it. For weeks, Someone had been taking His hands, as it were, and widening my soul in order to create space for Himself.”

It wasn’t until Joni went to a Young Life-sponsored camp that she began to piece together what she’d learned about absolute truth and God’s Word. There under the stars at a Virginia conference center, she discovered her sin—and the fact that Jesus gave His life to reconcile us to God.

“As I sensed the presence of this personal God beginning to fill that space in my soul, the first word that came to my mind was clean,” Joni says. “I felt clean and fresh. The pine trees seemed just as clean. The stars, too. They looked like little pinpricks on a sprawling black dome, through which the pure, sweet light of heaven sparkled and streamed.

“That evening, I looked all around me. Everything appeared different. God had entered my heart, and I knew Him—not just in my head; I experienced Him in my heart. I had hope.”

The Turnaround
After camp was over, Joni’s life wasn’t perfect. Everyday struggles with pride, anger, lust—things we all wrestle with—were still there. Changing her life was a process.

In the spring of 1967, Joni prayed, “I’m tired of saying I’m a Christian out of one side of my mouth and saying something else out of the other. I want to honor God with my life. And so, God, I’m asking You to please, please do something in my life to turn it around, because I’m making a mess of it. If I’m going to call myself a Christian, I want to live like one!”

That summer, Joni broke her neck when she dove into shallow water. She thought her recovery and rehabilitation would take forever. The initial months were harsh: the cold intensive care unit, hallucinations, nightmares, and the poking, prodding doctors. But those paled in comparison to Joni’s shock of learning just before her eighteenth birthday that she would be paralyzed for life from the neck down.

God brought Joni through stages of depression, resentment, and questioning His purposes. He took her through experiences that people around the world affected by disability share. Whether parents of a child with autism, a middle-aged man with cerebral palsy, or a teen with brain injuries, Joni could relate.

In 1976, Joni wrote her autobiography, and a movie about her life premiered in 1979. This fueled the start of a nonprofit organization, Joni and Friends. Later, Joni remembered the role camp had played in her life and wanted others to enjoy the same opportunity. So in 1991, Joni and Friends, now a member of Christian Camp and Conference Association, hosted its first family retreat.

No Limits
School and work schedules, extracurricular activities, and finances make it a battle for many families to get to camp. Add to the mix a disability, and everything is compounded. But the benefits for families affected by disability are astonishing.

Joni and Friends Family Retreats is a five-day program for families affected by disability. Some of the best accessible U.S. camps host the retreats, and the campers are children and adults with spina bifida, spinal cord injuries, and a wide range of other disabilities.
One father says being at camp “is the freshest breath of air we breathe all year. My daughter…is free, appreciated, and applauded.”

A mother boasts, “My son’s world in a wheelchair has gotten smaller and smaller, but at [camp] he tried it all and expanded his horizons.” Another mom says camp “is the one place on earth where our kids with disabilities are loved and not stared at or pitied. We all have the time of our lives.”

This summer, Joni and Friends will host 15 weeks of camp for about 550 families. One mother says, “For the first time in 12 years, I can thank God from my heart for my son’s disability. This retreat has changed my life.”

James Freeman is the national director of Joni and Friends Family Retreats. He lives in southern California with his wife, Julie, and their young daughter.

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