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Jim and Janet Slaight     

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One traumatized family discovered wholeness at camp

By Janet Slaight

I can hardly believe it was almost seven years ago. It only takes one quick glance around at our home’s modifications or a phone call from one of the doctors to be reminded of the accident.

It was July of 1999, the first day of my husband, Jim’s, vacation. We headed out to our church campgrounds in Indiana, wanting to get the cabin ready for camp, which was to start that Thursday night. But we never did make it to church camp that night—or even that year.

Crash Crisis
Our trip came to a horrific halt when we were hit head-on by a man driving under the influence at speeds estimated to be nearly 100 miles per hour. The enormous force of the impact killed our four-year-old daughter, Hope, instantly. Jim was airlifted from the scene to Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne. I was transported to our local hospital, which became home for the next seven weeks. Our oldest daughter, Hannah, then 8, was transported three times before ending up at a children’s hospital. Six-year-old Hayley was airlifted to another hospital in Michigan, and Joe, 5, was also at Parkview hospital. While I had known at the scene of the accident that Hope had died, it would be days before I learned the extent of everyone’s injuries. I was in the hospital when I learned that Hannah and Joe would never walk again. Hearing the news and dealing with the news are two totally different things. For the next year, our family ran on nothing more than the faithful prayers of our family, neighbors, church members, and community.

Camp at Last
It was a trip back to camp—to a Joni and Friends Retreat—where the journey of healing began. It is an answer to all those faithful prayers and the simple prayers of one little girl.The staff and volunteers at the camp lovingly embraced what we had been trying so hard in the last year to just accept: life with disabilities. On the first night, we were showered with so much love and acceptance that we thought there must be something wrong with the staff. We couldn’t understand how could anyone have that much love for a family that was so broken. Jim and I decided that after everyone went to bed that night, we would sneak out with the kids and go home, where it was safe. On our way to dinner, however, we ran into a veteran camp family who must have seen the look of shock on our faces. The man, Bryan, asked if it was our first time at family camp—as if it were not obvious. He told us he remembered how overwhelming that first day was for him and his family, but his words of encouragement were that if we would stick with it, by the middle of the week we wouldn’t want to go home.

Childlike Faith
Still not totally convinced, we attended the ice cream social, where our hearts were forever changed. Hannah had only been praying for three things that summer—and physical healing was not one of them. She wanted to go to this camp, she wanted to meet another girl who was a paraplegic, and she wanted to meet the camp’s founder, Joni Eareckson Tada. Hannah did meet another young girl who was a paraplegic and who had also been paralyzed in a car accident. And it was Joni who introduced the two. We didn’t sneak out late that night nor did we want to go home at the end of the week. What we found that week at camp was healing, acceptance, life-long friends, and freedom to learn what it meant to live with disability.

Together
Joni and Friends is a week filled with new experiences: hot air balloon rides, tubing, boat rides, horseback riding, makeovers, hayrides, and many other activities. It is also a week of praise and worship, Bible studies, small groups, and precious family moments. It is a time that the whole family can heal and grow—not just the family member with the disability.

Our daughter Hayley, at the time the only sibling who could walk at our house, not only enjoyed many new experiences, but also met other siblings who know the struggles of having a sister or brother with a disability. This year, our family will return to camp with our newest member, our adopted daughter, Brenna. We never expected that the trip to camp that was so tragically interrupted would lead us to another camp—one of profound healing and hope.

Janet and Jim Slaight live in Elkhart, Indiana, with Hannah, Hayley, Joe, and Brenna.

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