A true Californian boy with blonde hair and blue eyes gleefully posed for the camera in a shirt that reads “Canada”, the rest of his features covered by a classic moustache disguise – this is the way most people at Serve know John Brouwer.
A playful character who is always willing to dance along to a Justin Bieber song, John’s heart is as big as the bright smile that lights up his face whenever he interacts with his friends.
His friends are the other special-needs campers attending Youth Unlimited’s Special Needs Serve, a weeklong overnight camp for teens and young adults with special needs. Some campers, like John, have Down syndrome, while others have learning impediments or more severe intellectual disabilities that can make life a challenge.
Begun in 2008, and hosted at Calvin Christian Reformed Church, Serve is run entirely by volunteers.
Currently, Serve welcomes 15 to 20 participants each year, providing them with a week of teaching and lessons about God, as well as one-on-one support from mentors, fun activities, volunteerism, friendship and good food.
“Serve is never the same. There are always new mentors and participants. It is always changing, but the thing that stays the same is the friendships that are made, and it amazes me how quickly they are made,” said Joanna Janssen, a Direct Support Worker for Christian Horizons, who has been involved with Serve since its creation.
To retain participant interest and create unique memories, every day at Serve is different. Part of the day is devoted to teaching, while the other part is devoted to fun and friendship.
Small groups is a time for participants to learn and go deeper into the lesson and word of God, while in the evening, the speaker draws them together as a whole camp to impart a message.
Highlights of the week always include leisurely activities like bowling, motorcycle rides, Ray’s reptiles or mini put, and the volunteer work sites – such as Jericho Road, the Ottawa Mission or The Ottawa Food bank – where participants serve others.
To finish the week, there is fancy dinner where participants and mentors dress up, get pampered, dance, and perform together in a talent show that brings everyone to their feet.
Ron Hosmar, Commissioned Pastor of Youth and Congregational Life at Calvin, was inspired to create Serve by discovering a similar project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Approaching a congregational member who had a sister with Down syndrome, Hosmar asked if she would be interested in trying the same type of project. After Hosmar, and a small group of interested volunteers, visited Grand Rapids, the Serve project was given a chance.
Over the past six years, Serve has continuously evolved, welcoming and saying farewell to various participants, mentors, speakers, volunteers, work sites and activities.
Not only do participants return again and again to enjoy the week, but every year familiar faces are seen among the mentors, with volunteering often running in the family.
“My sister was a mentor the year before my first year of being a mentor and she really enjoyed it,” said 17-year-old Ben Brinkman. “It seemed like a good experience, and I loved it, so I have continued to be a mentor.”
Serve’s commitment, camaraderie and love is apparent in the instant bonds created between mentor and participant and the old friendships that are quickly renewed.
Taurie March, an exuberant fan of the TV show Glee and much-loved participant, had these words for future campers, “I would tell them that you make new friends and it’s such a blast.”
“Our Mentors want to come back each year because they grow and come to love our participants so much,” Hosmar said.
“Everyone on the trip is remarkably present. People are able to truly see each other,” added Mark DeVos, Serve’s 2013 speaker. “This kind of attentive love has an untold impact on the youth and other servants during the trip.”
While the participants are the ones there to learn and volunteer, the mentors and camp staff can’t help but leave with valuable takeaways. As Brinkman said, “[Serve] has impacted me through [the participants] joy and unique point of view on things, giving me new perspectives, as well as the great experience and unforgettable memories.”
“Every person has unique value. I learn this from the participants,” said DeVos. “In many ways they are able to accept and love one another better than I am […] I respect them for their fearless ability to live out their uniqueness.”
“When they accomplish something for the first time the joy they show is contagious,” Janssen said, “They teach you something new every day, and they have a love for life that not everyone has.”
The benefits of Serve can be seen throughout the lives of everyone involved, whether volunteer, mentor, planning team, participant or the parents that are given a week’s respite from the sometimes demanding care of a child with special needs.
“Our participants learn to be more independent,” Hosmar said. “Their families appreciate a safe place for their children to be cared for and loved on for a week. They can then take some time to rest knowing their son or daughter is safe. “
Serve’s volunteer planning team is in full swing with preparations for 2014’s camp. It will be held at Calvin CRC in Ottawa from July 5 – 10. Though the site is full, if you know of anyone who might be interested as a mentor [aged 14 and up] or participant [aged 14 – 26] for next year, have them contact Pastor Ron. You can also review the past Serve happenings by looking up Pastor Ron’s blog and clicking on the July entries for any given past year. “Hopefully,” Hosmar said, “Serve continues to grow and be part of the fabric of our church and the lives of those families who we are blessing through this ministry.”
Parents of participants agree.
“I wanted to have John be in a project where he was fully included, not just an add-on,” said Grace Brouwer, John’s mother. “John knows he is serving Jesus, and others. He gains new relationships, even though from afar, and I can relax because I know he is in good hands.”