TUSTIN — Cars and vans bringing 19 eager families began to arrive Thursday afternoon at Kettunen Center as moms, dads and kids looked forward to summer fun among the rolling hills, woods and sparkling lake which form the scenic grounds of the 160-acre site.

They came from Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois to attend a four-day retreat for persons with disability and their families sponsored by the Joni and Friends Disability International Center based in California. The center sponsors annual retreats at a number of locations throughout the United States and overseas. The families find time to both relax and experience a wide range of crafts, outdoor activities and Bible study in a fully accessible camp environment. Tempting home-style meals are provided and there are opportunities to fellowship with others who understand the challenges of life with disability. Staff and volunteers line up outside to greet families as they arrive and present them with a large welcome basket filled with an assortment of gifts and handy items they can use during their stay. All the baskets are different; each is customized to match the interests and age group of the recipients. They include toiletries, note cards, pens, toys and games for children, reading material for adults, a study Bible, snacks and fresh fruit. The contents of the baskets were donated by the congregation of Northland Community Church of McBain. A committee of members gathered the material, assembled the baskets and delivered them to Kettunen Center for distribution. A short term missionary is also paired with each family upon arrival. They are volunteers who spend all day with the families, assisting them and joining them as they participate in daily events. For some who have volunteered in the five previous retreats at Kettunen Center, there is a happy reunion with a family they have known in the past and the anticipation of spending time together once again. “I am going into the field of special education,” said 22-year-old Emily Kiel from Hudsonville, “and when I heard about these retreats I felt God was calling me to help out. This is the third year I have volunteered and it is an eye-opener for me to see the realities of day-to-day life for those with disability.” Harriet Borgman from McBain has a more personal reason for volunteering. “My husband was in a wheelchair,” she said, “and after I read a book by Joni who founded the retreats, I wondered how I could help out. “I have been involved since 1999, going to retreats in Pennsylvania, Indiana and now the Kettunen Center retreats. I hope I help others, but actually I come away feeling the families have given me a bigger blessing than I could ever give them. “They motivate me. I am uplifted and energized when I go home, all thanks to the wonderful folks I have met.” According to retreat director Cindy Prince, about half the families are attending for the first time. For others, it is a highly anticipated annual outing. “Most of our families have one or more special needs children,” Prince said, “but adults with disability are welcome also.” Sarah and Duane Eggebroten from Grand Rapids attended with their three children, including one with special needs. “It’s good to be with other families that understand the stresses we’re under,” said Sarah. It’s a loving and accepting place to have fun and be spiritually encouraged.” “We make friends here,” said Duane. “This is our fifth year at Kettunen Center and it’s good to see them again and to encourage one another.” Cheryl and Lawrence Maison arrived from Livonia with their four sons, including three with special needs. “This is our fourth year here,” said Cheryl, “and we love it. It gives us a chance to relax as a family. The help from the short term missionaries is wonderful, and we don’t have to be worrying about the children’s behavior that’s different from other kids. “We hear speakers that motivate us and renew us, and we fill our cup again. We may arrive weary, but we are renewed by the time we leave.” “The camp is awesome,” said Lawrence. “The moment we leave, we are already planning to come back and looking forward to the next summer.” It’s easy to see why so many families attend the retreat year after year when reviewing the exciting lineup of activities and experiences available to both adults and children. Outdoor activities include horseback riding, canoeing and kayaking, swimming, fishing, pontoon, paddleboat and rowboat rides, train and wagon rides and evening campfires. For total relaxation, massage, foot reflexology, hair styling and manicures provide a welcome taste of pampering. A special highlight is the Friday night adult dinner. While the missionaries entertain the children, parents are treated to an elegant gourmet dinner complete with linen tablecloths and candlelight. “For some of the families,” said Prince, “this is the only time of the year that the moms and dads can have a night to themselves and enjoy a fine meal with candlelight and no interruptions or concerns about the children. It is a big treat. “The families leave on Sunday and Monday morning my staff and I will start planning for next year and hope to make it even better, more enjoyable and improve all we can to better meet the needs of those who join us.” To learn more about the Joni and Friends International Disability Center, their mission statement, worldwide ministries and volunteer opportunities visit the website (
www.joniandfriends.org ). The Kettunen Center is a full-service conference center and retreat facility near Tustin owned and operated by the Michigan 4-H Foundation. For directions, a map and further information about the facility and schedule of activities, visit the website (
kettunencenter.org ) or call 231-829-3421.