Special-needs family camp = faith, fun in the sun

It’s all smiles as Luke Musick, 7, from Olpe rides his horse alongside his parents, Darin and Elaine, and camp counselor Matt Wilson. This is the archdiocese’s first-ever camp for families with special-needs members at Camp Tekakwitha in Williamsburg. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven

WILLIAMSBURG — Seven families and three days — it was a recipe for respite on the grounds of Prairie Star Ranch here.

The ranch is the site of the archdiocese’s Camp Tekakwitha, which hosts a variety of spiritual and adventure camp retreats for youth and families alike.

Recently, the ranch served as the backdrop to the archdiocese’s first special-needs family camp. Tom Racunas, the lead consultant for the archdiocese’s special-needs ministry, organized the camp with the encouragement of Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, vicar general Father Gary Pennings and Deacon Dana Nearmyer.

“It had always been the archbishop’s and Deacon Dana’s hope to do something for families raising children with special needs,” said Racunas.

“Once the special-needs ministry started,” he added, “one of the first questions they asked me was, ‘Would you be willing to start a family special-needs camp?’”

It wasn’t hard to fill camp vacancies. Families were eager to spend both spiritual and outdoor activity time together. Frank and Mary Cay Tokic of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood attended the camp with their 22-year-old son Nick, who has Down syndrome.

“The camp created an opportunity to pray together,” Mary Cay said. “We’ve always gone to retreats separately and have never had the opportunity to attend a marriage retreat, because we had to tag team so that someone could be with Nick.”

As a result, Frank and Mary Cay experienced many “firsts” at the camp, including Mary Cay’s rookie zip- line experience (as captured on video by Frank), long hikes and even tropically dressed beverages in a luau-style setting by the camp’s lake.

They knew of the camp’s appeal from their older two boys. But now, they could experience it together, and Nick could experience it with peers.

“Our two older boys came here when they were in middle school, and they each had a story to tell of the experience,” Frank told the other couples during a group discussion on goodness.

“Now Nick is going to have a story,” he continued. “That’s the beauty. The challenge now becomes how do we go back to our lives?”

The three-day special-needs camp ran from late morning on June 29 to the afternoon of July 1. Family members spent time together and apart, so that parents could enjoy some time alone.

All participants had a chance to enjoy all the camp had to offer, including hiking, archery, the power pole, swimming, canoeing, rock wall climbing, zip lining, mountain biking and more.

Children were matched with a staff of youth peers and attended catechesis discussions while parents gathered to discuss the camp’s summer 2018 theme: “Truth, Beauty and Goodness.”

“The goal was to serve families who have children with special needs, as they have many blessings and challenges,” said Racunas. “All families need to be a family,

to spend time together and to pray together.”

That’s exactly what Leo and Maria Cangiani of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka enjoyed with their four children.

Their 8-year-old son Gianni has anxiety. They worried how he would navigate the camp’s challenges and new people but were pleasantly surprised.

“Seeing him do things he wouldn’t normally do and knowing he feels safe means everything to us,” Maria said. “It’s an important reminder that we shouldn’t try to fix him. We should all embrace him.”

During one group discussion, Angie Bittner, who co-led the discussion on goodness with Racunas, talked of the goodness that comes from God. Bittner is the outreach coordinator for rural youth in the archdiocese.

“God wasn’t bored or lonely. He created everything out of his love and goodness,” said Bittner of St. Stanislaus Parish in Rossville.

“Goodness is renouncing evil and choosing to do good, fulfilling the purpose we were made for,” she added. “We have goodness, and we’re fulfilling what we were created to do. Even the simplest things can be so good.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Mary Cay.

“Our kids bring us so much love and enjoyment, even though we’ve been given certain hardships,” she said. “It’s just a different journey for families raising children with special needs.

“But God has picked us up on that journey.”

The camp provided adult siblings with an opportunity to share and express, as well.

Kelsie Gartner, 25, is a member of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park. Her sister is 21 and has autism. At times, it can be challenging to have a sibling with special needs — often, those siblings take on added responsibilities.

“But God knows how to help her when I have no idea how to help her,” said Kelsie, “so I continually release her into his hands.

“I know Jesus died for her, too. And just like he pursues me, he hasn’t stopped pursuing her either.”

Throughout the three-day camp, parents praised the young staff members who engaged with and cared for individuals with special needs, led prayer groups and served up family meals.

It truly made families feel loved and spoiled, parents said.

Similarly, the parents who attended the camp forged new relationships with one another that will likely have a lasting impact.

“I can’t practice my faith on my own without a community,” Frank said. “He’s making us stronger because of this community.

“If I fall today, I know someone is going to help me get up. Or maybe I can help someone else.”

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