By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 29, 2007
Published: March 29, 2007
In 1999 I did a story about the ministry for people with disabilities at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Atlanta.
At the time, I was just a reporter covering a story. I didn’t know how that ministry or the people involved in it would impact my life for years to come.
That day was the first time I met Toni Miralles, the extraordinary woman who created the ministry as a way to assist her daughter, Felicia, who has a slight mental disability.
Toni was a woman to whom you couldn’t say no. In her firm but enthusiastic way, she made one want to become involved. Her commitment to the ministry was infectious.
So when she told me that I should attend the annual weekend camp held each spring, she had signed me up before I had even finished saying “yes.”
This year I’ll attend my eighth camp, now named Toni’s Camp after Miralles, who died in 2000.
Much has changed since Toni died. Her ministry has blossomed and led to the creation of a full-time archdiocesan office and a director, Ed McCoy. We now spend our camp weekend at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, rather than at Camp Will-a-Way in Fort Yargo State Park in Winder, where Toni’s Camp was held for decades.
But much is the same: the joy of a friendship sparking between a camper and a counselor, the enthusiasm of the volunteers, and the unconditional love offered by the campers.
It’s a weekend of exhaustion, but pure happiness.
Held each year since 1973, the weekend is geared toward special education students from pre-school through adulthood, offering spiritual, social and recreational time for campers, who are paired up with a counselor, allowing for one-on-one interaction.
The weekend is filled with activity, from movies and games, to boating and fishing, to putt-putt and archery, and arts and crafts.
But at the center of it all is the relationship between the campers and their counselors.
I’ve been blessed to have been matched with the most incredible campers during my time at Toni’s Camp. Each one of them has taught me something, and I can truly say that each has a special place in my heart.
There’s Stuart, who calls all the girls “sweetheart.” There’s Suzanne who is always willing to try new things and can tell people which day of the week they were born just by knowing their birthdates. There’s Kathleen whose favorite question is “are you happy?” and who loves to jokingly tell people that they are “fired”(long before Donald Trump adopted the slogan.) Then there’s Beth, whose beautiful singing voice echoes often in my head, and Donna, who gives some of the best hugs I’ve ever received.
Sometimes I’m sadly aware that for some of my camp friends, this may be the only weekend of the year where they feel completely accepted by everyone around them. But I also am reminded of the great hope that abounds in God’s love for us, as those who are mistakenly looked upon as “outcasts” show the rest of us what love really looks like.
It’s a weekend that I’ve come to anticipate each year. And though by definition, the word “volunteer” means to give of one’s service, those of us who participate in Toni’s Camp know that we receive more from the weekend than we could ever begin to give.
Toni’s Camp will be held this year from May 11-13 at Camp Twin Lakes. For more information on volunteering, call Ed McCoy at (404) 888-7809 or e-mail him at email@example.com.