By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published May 25, 2023
RUTLEDGE—It’s hard to keep Felicia Miralles in one place. As her fellow campers gather for dinner Friday night, she moves from table to table, chatting with old friends and new, asking about their spouses and their children. Her eager audience greets her with enthusiasm. After all it’s because of her they’re all here—and a weekend of fun awaits them all.
Felicia is the daughter of the late Toni Miralles, who devoted herself to serving the disabilities community in the Archdiocese of Atlanta—advocating for other parents with children like Felicia. Her legacy left an indelible mark on countless families throughout the archdiocese and beyond, including the annual Toni’s Camp named in her honor. This year, the camp, which takes place each May at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Toni’s Camp has humble beginnings. In 1971 Miralles took Felicia and some of her friends on a camping trip on Mother’s Day weekend, hoping to give parents of children with developmental disabilities a reprieve. This year, for its golden anniversary, Toni’s Camp had nearly 60 campers and as many volunteers, many of whom, like Trish Hungerbuehler, have been serving the ministry for decades.
Hungerbuehler first joined the Toni’s Camp family when Miralles approached the young adult group at her parish, St. Jude the Apostle Church in Sandy Springs, to help with a Valentine’s Day dance at the church, and eventually to volunteer at camp. Hungerbuehler was just 27. She’s been volunteering ever since, and her three children, who “grew up at camp” also volunteer.
“Camp is like a reprieve from the real world. It doesn’t matter the job you have, the car you drive or how much money you make. The campers love you and accept you for who you are,” she said. “It fills my heart to see them year after year. I really believe it’s heaven on earth—it represents hope and love and that acceptance we all strive for.”
Each year, campers and counselors make their way to Rutledge by bus or car. The weekend is filled with activities like boating, fishing, arts and crafts, archery and kickball. And it’s all punctuated with prayer and singing—culminating in a closing Mass on Sunday before everyone heads home.
Maggie Rousseau, who has served as the director for the archdiocesan disabilities ministry for the last 10 years, said the camp is planned and executed each year by the Toni’s Camp Core Team. Known affectionately as “red shirts” to the community because of the red polos they wear during the weekend, the Core Team members come from a variety of backgrounds.
“The team is made up of long-time adult volunteers, nurses and camp physician, deacons and Chancery staff. The volunteers have varied experience in special education, psychology, behavioral intervention, case management, music and, of course, Scripture,” she said. “The 15-plus members of the core team combined have over 235 years of service to this ministry.”
A learning experience for all
Pat Tweed, a core member who has been volunteering at Toni’s Camp for 40 years, first got involved after the death of her daughter. Miralles suggested Tweed, now 86, come to camp. She’s been hooked ever since.
“It raised my spirits and it made me feel like I was giving, but really, I learned more from (the campers) than I’ve ever taught,” Tweed said. “It’s changed me. I always considered myself a diverse person, but it’s made me more accepting of all of God’s creatures. It’s reminded me that each of us has a disability.”
Deacon Greg Orf, who serves at Good Samaritan Church in Ellijay, has served on the Core Team, since 2015. He said that while he enjoys getting to know the campers, he’s been equally inspired by the counselors. Volunteers come from all walks of life, including many teenagers from Catholic high schools and youth groups.
The deacon said it doesn’t matter if a volunteer is in high school or is a 50-year-old looking to get involved when they are presented with the opportunity to give of themselves to someone for a weekend.
It’s a weekend “to not have to worry about what their friends are doing and to join in the fun, or what they should have for dinner or who to catch up with. But the chance to just forget all about those things and focus on a single person—someone who needs a little guidance or help or just someone to accompany them,” he said. It’s a really beautiful thing to just be able to not worry about what they want themselves but to take the time to only worry about the other person’s needs—to give the camper the opportunity to do something that society thinks they can’t do, and to let them just have the time of their lives doing it.”
Deacon Orf’s wife and daughter also volunteer at Toni’s Camp. He said he grows in his own faith during each camp.
“So often in life we think we are being helpful by doing some sort of mundane chore for someone with a disability. Even after seven camps I still will catch myself prematurely trying to jump in to help,” he said. “But my growth opportunity is to step back and let them do it for themselves. Let them have the joy that comes from completing a task. It helps me to grow to see the beauty of all of God’s children and just because I can do something doesn’t mean that I should do something. That really helps me with ministry back in the parish—and that’s a great lesson that our counselors can learn in life.”
Becoming the image of God
Richardo Aranda has been a camper since 2011. Aranda, who uses a motorized wheelchair, said the closing Mass Sunday is his favorite part of camp.
“I keep coming back because of the new friends I make and seeing old friends again,” he said. “Also, there’s a time at the closing dance every year that my favorite song is played—and listening to it reminds me of how fun camp is.”
The Saturday night dance and closing Mass Sunday are highlights for many campers and counselors, including Tom Studer a parishioner of St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn, who volunteers, and whose daughter, Caroline, participates as a camper.
“From a dad perspective Toni’s camp is special because I see these young volunteers love my daughter so much. They don’t have to be there, but they are. I am excited about our next generation. They will treat people with disability just like everyone else—I can’t say I was that way when I was younger. I bring Caroline back because she wouldn’t miss it. She has such a great time. It also gives my wife Lynne and my other daughter Elizabeth a chance to go out by themselves, just the two of them,” he said. “It’s a great weekend for the whole family.”
This year, Bishop John Nhan Tran celebrated the closing Mass for the first time. As he stood near the altar, which was decorated with the handprints of campers, he told the participants he was honored to be with them. He especially thanked the volunteers and prayed that their experience would inspire them.
“Bishops or deacons or volunteers, we think we can do something for the campers, but it is in fact the campers who are helping us this weekend to grow—to become more the image of God and so thank you for that,” he said. “And so I ask the Lord to bless you—to continue to help you help others, people like myself to grow and to love as God has loved us.”
Miralles’ love for her daughter has continued to radiate in the archdiocese. In addition to Toni’s Camp, Rousseau helps parishes throughout north and central Georgia with their own disabilities ministries. And twice each year, a Faith and Sharing Mass for people with disabilities and their families, is held at various churches. Toni’s Camp, Rousseau said, is often the catalyst for involvement.
“If I could describe camp, it would be the long-ago song “The Spirit is A-Movin’—‘People are gatherin’—the church is born’—all people singing together to worship and to share their voice during the camp talent show. And ‘filled with the spirit we are sent to serve,’ as volunteers new and old leave camp with hearts open toward others with differences. Campers leave camp feeling loved and fulfilled. You can feel the Holy Spirit in the wind blowing through the trees as a camper zip-lines down to the sound of applause, or in the moments of silence during Mass,” she said.
And though the disabilities community continues to evolve, Rousseau said there is more work ahead.
“Toni’s Camp and the Disabilities Ministry in the Archdiocese of Atlanta have grown so much since that first camping trip, but God’s work is never done,” she said. “As church, we need to open our doors wide, smile and, through word and action, say “we are so glad you are here!’”
Rousseau said those interested in starting a disabilities ministry in their parish should contact her. Volunteers ages 14 and older are always needed.
“If you come with an open heart, you will leave as family,” she said.