Today, we warmly welcome Jon Oliver to talk about “Exceptional Camp,” a unique summer camp experience designed for children with disabilities. Jon has been serving as the Director of Discipleship Ministries for the North Carolina Conference and Executive Director of Falcon Youth Camp since 2008. Before moving into a full-time conference role, he was the Youth & Executive Pastor at St. Paul Church in Greenville, NC. - Kristi Cain, IPHC Children's Ministries National Director
Kristi: Your Discipleship Ministries team offers a very special camp for children with disabilities. Would you tell me about it?
Jon: Several years ago, while serving on the National DM Council, I had the privilege of meeting IPHC pastors Kent and Denise Bell. They shared the story of their son, Jason, and how he inspired them to start “Loving Hands”—a ministry to people with special needs. This experience challenged me to consider what we could do for this demographic. About the same time, the Assistant Director of Discipleship Ministries in North Carolina, Kevin Mooring, became acquainted with Lisa Aycock, the director of Hugs Camp (an Episcopalian sponsored camp for children with special needs).
Kristi: Were there other experiences that fueled your desire to start this camp?
Jon: Several years leading up to our very first Exceptional Camp, I had an “Aha“ moment. I was facilitating the “Flying Squirrel” (part of our High Ropes Course) and noticed a young lady who was having difficulty with the activity. It was then that I realized she had a disability. I also started noticing others like her who were sprinkled throughout the various groups of Falcon Youth Camp. I knew then we had to offer something for this special community.
Kristi: It seems like a daunting task to get a camp like this started. How did you do it?
Jon: As I mentioned, I started by connecting with Kent and Denise Bell. They came and shared their heart at our Discipleship Day of Training. This is how we sowed the seed for the vision. We then put together a team that included educators as well as special needs and medical professionals. We brainstormed about the camp and settled on calling it “Falcon Exceptional Needs Camp.” The ball was rolling, and we began tackling logistics. We started small and made adjustments as necessary.
Kristi: I’m sure you have some incredible stories of how this camp has blessed individuals and families. Would you share a favorite experience with us?
Jon: I have several but one thing that stands out is the enjoyment and excitement this camp brings to the staff who work so hard to make it happen. They come to serve, and they talk about how much it means to them to see the smiles on the students’ faces. There are and will always be challenges, but it has been worth it. Also, since we had to postpone last year due to Covid, I know of one student who has been asking his children’s pastor for a whole year when they were going back to camp at Falcon.
Kristi: What suggestions do you have for other conferences that want to do something like this?
Jon: It is very important to start small. We are still in the infancy stage (we have only done this two years). We are hoping and planning to extend the time at camp by one day. Although I don’t know exactly what this year will look like at this moment, I know we have to do something.
Also, I’ve learned not to be afraid to ask questions and [have realized] the importance of putting together a great team of volunteers who are prepared to help with planning and oversight. We leaned heavily on the advice of Lisa Aycock. We were super blessed to connect with her, and since starting Exceptional Camp, Lisa has trusted us enough to send her own two children to us.
Kristi: What has been your biggest challenge and how have you dealt with it?
Jon: I would say our biggest challenge is having enough medical personnel for the various needs and making sure we can provide a high level of care. The application process is extensive and extremely important so we can provide for the medical needs of each student.
Kristi: Do you have anything else you’d like to share about this event?
Jon: I was super disappointed we could not have camp last summer, but I hope and pray we will have a great Falcon Exceptional Camp this year. I can’t help but think of the verse, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). That is our heart. We are just trying to share the love of Christ with a community Jesus dearly loves.
Interested in Learning More?
You can find out more about “Exceptional Camp” and “Loving Hands” at these links:
If you are interested in starting a special needs ministry within your church or conference, we’d love to help you get connected to the right people. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Kristi Cain currently serves as the National Director of Children's Ministries. She has served in a broad range of discipleship capacities since she graduated from Emmanuel College in 1997. She was formerly the Executive Editor of Curriculum for the IPHC and has also enjoyed being on the staff of two churches where she directed student and children’s ministry programs. She is married to her best friend, Jamie, and together they have three children: Cullen, Owen, and Annabeth. Kristi loves exploring new places with her family, conversing over morning coffee with her husband, reading, and teaching at her church.
Jon Oliver is currently the Discipleship Ministries Director for the North Carolina Conference. Jon is a graduate of Emmanuel College and Southwestern Christian University. He has been married to Nicole Oliver for 25 years and together they have two sons, Coley (23) and Cade (19).