For years, I watched a former student volunteer every summer as a short-term missionary at the Joni and Friends Family Retreat. Each year, when this young man shared his experiences with our church, I would think, “Oh, I want to do that someday!” But caring for my aging parent and other responsibilities prevented me—until last summer. My responsibilities covered by others, I was finally able to go.
Even though I am a professional educator, I still entered my week as a Joni and Friends volunteer with uncertainty. What type of needs would my camper have? I know about learning differences, but what if my camper’s needs were more profound than those with which I had experience? I was sixty years old; would I have the stamina to keep up with my camper? Would I be in over my head? I held tightly to the God of the impossible, trusting that he would, indeed, display his faithfulness during this week, for my good and for his own glory.
But when I learned who my specific camper would be, and the nature of his needs, my uncertainty increased. His name was Sawyer, he was twelve years old, and he was on the autism spectrum with very limited verbal skills. I had never worked with a nonverbal student before. How would Sawyer and I communicate? I also learned that he had occasionally been known to wander or bolt impulsively in the past. Would I be able to keep up with him? I kept praying, Lord, you have brought me here. Please give me what I need to help and encourage this young man. I cannot do this without you, Lord! I knew that volunteers and campers are not paired until the staff has prayed diligently over the assignments, so I had to trust that this match was directed and blessed by God.
As soon as I met Sawyer’s family, his mom and I instantly connected, and I learned that she had relatives in my hometown. In fact, I had even met Sawyer’s grandfather! When she introduced me to her son, this non-verbal boy opened his arms to me and gave me a big hug. I quickly saw that he didn’t need words to communicate: this boy had a heart full of love to share.
The staff and volunteers were all a team, and there was always someone coming alongside to help me with Sawyer, often before I even acknowledged the need myself. Sawyer tried several new activities and delighted in many new experiences during our week together. I learned how to read his “signals” when he needed redirection or less sensory stimulation. I learned how to help him de-escalate and focus his attention on the small details that would bring him joy. I was growing right along with him!
After the retreat ended, Sawyer and his family kept in touch with me. I worshiped with them in their church, and visited when they vacationed close by. He continues to grow and develop in many ways, cognitively and verbally, and his joyful heart is evident for all to see. He loves the Lord Jesus, and delights in singing the praises of our Savior. Sawyer has taught me to see others with the eyes of my heart. May God grant us the grace to see others from his perspective, and to communicate the love of our Savior to them in many different ways.
The author is a member of Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine. New Horizons, July 2019.