First-ever Salvation Army adaptive retreat aims for delegates to 'find joy'

First-ever Salvation Army adaptive retreat aims for delegates to ‘find joy’

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Colors and shouts filled the chapel at the College for Officer Training (CFOT) at Crestmont in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, April 28 as a group of about 60 individuals joined in worship. Coming from as close as down the street to as far as Brooklyn, New York, attendees used egg shakers, ribbons and colored scarves to fuel the celebration.

The gathering marked the beginning of the inaugural Adaptive Retreat, a weekend specifically designed for young adults with disabilities and their chaperones to provide a space for all to feel welcome.

Territorial Disabilities Ministries Director and Spiritual Formation Resource Officer Major Nancy Helms organized the weekend to not only include but celebrate those who are sometimes pushed to the sidelines.

“It was exciting to plan and implement this necessary gathering,” she said. “It is the first time the Western Territory has provided a retreat specifically for young adults with varied cognitive, neuro and physical needs, where they were welcomed and belonged to something their typical peers experience regularly.”

The weekend was filled with activities aimed for attendees to experience joy. On Friday night, delegates sang campfire songs and roasted marshmallows, faces lit by a toasty fire pit. Saturday morning, each attendee received an award for participation in a field day—accompanied by a Kona Ice Truck, face painting and yard games. Saturday night, the campus Terrace Room was transformed into a movie premiere, where individuals were interviewed by the “paparazzi” and participated in dancing and karaoke.

First-ever Salvation Army adaptive retreat aims for delegates to 'find joy'
Photo by John Docter.

“My favorite part was the dance and karaoke,” said Sonja Erlandson, a delegate from the Anacortes (Washington) Corps. “I like to sing about Jesus and make new friends. Everybody was so kind to me. I hope I get to come next year, too.”

Erlandson was invited to the weekend by her corps officer, Lt. Shane Ingram, who made all of the arrangements for her and her friend, Rachelle, to attend, said Donna Erlandson, Sonja’s mother.

“The Adaptive Retreat at Crestmont was a time of renewal for Sonja’s faith,” Donna Erlandson said. “She commented on how special she felt during her time there. The Salvation Army has been and continues to be a blessing to our family in times of need, and in celebration.”

In the planning process, Helms highlighted a desire to bring unique and exciting activities, especially as many attendees never had the opportunity to experience them before. The delegates from New York, who had never been outside of the state, even got to experience Universal Studios, thanks to their corps officer.

In addition to the fun-filled activities, the weekend considered its theme, “Find Joy,” and its meaning in a Christian context. Salvation Army cadets—officers in training—led three worship services throughout the retreat, using the letters from the word “joy” to represent Jesus first (J), others second (O) and yourself last (Y). The cadets used skits, object lessons and games to convey the messages. Additionally, the retreat created spaces for accessibility by providing earplugs, fidget toys and a calm space for escape.

CFOT cadets and staff led worship accompanied by two delegates, who joined with guitar and cajon. In each song, the audience brought passion and dancing. One delegate was asked to join on stage to share the lyrics of each song in American Sign Language (ASL).

Delegates at Salvation Army Adaptive Retreat practice songs in chapel.
Photo by John Docter.

“At every opportunity, cadets and officers were available for assistance or just a smile and a kind word,” said Donna Erlandson. “The genuine feeling of God’s love was truly present.”

In the final worship session on Sunday morning, Helms emphasized how the church often allows for archetypal style to become more valuable than the assurance of belonging for the people in attendance. While many may feel accessibility and creating a space for individuals with disabilities to belong is difficult, it’s clear through Scripture that it’s a commandment.

Jesus calls Christians to live a life of love, which means putting others above yourself, she said. Making the church accessible is essential to the mission of a Christian. Finding ways to love all people, including those with differences in ability, is a requirement. Change, while uncomfortable, is essential for growth. The church must look at its current state and critique its understanding of an “invitation to all.” When the term all is used, is it true?

“We hope and pray the retreat was a catalyst for change in The Salvation Army, and that more and more opportunities become available for individuals with varied disabilities to find a place where they can thrive and belong,” said Helms.

She noted that not only should the church want those in its congregations to feel welcome, but there should be a desire for discipleship and growth. This does not change when the attendee has physical, cognitive or neurological differences.

Many who attended or supported this event left with a full heart and desire for change. The hope is to see a church with the heart of Jesus, finding ways to highlight and value everyone. Austin, a delegate from Northwest Division, put it best when he shared in the final session, “Why haven’t we been doing this my whole life?”

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Do Good:

  • You’ve probably seen the red kettles and thrift stores, and while we’re rightfully well known for both…The Salvation Army is so much more than red kettles and thrift stores. So who are we? What do we do? Where? Right this way for Salvation Army 101.
  • How do we treat everyone with love and kindness, as if they were our neighbor? Get the Do Good Family Roadmap and take a 4-week journey for families in how to be a good neighbor. Follow the guide to see what the Bible says about the art of neighboring and take tangible steps together on your printable roadmap to be a caring, helpful, welcoming and supportive neighbor right where you are.
  • Learn how to love beyond disability by listening to this episode of the Do Gooders Podcast with Major Nancy Helms.
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