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.
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.
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.
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
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.