This is post 1 of 4 in a series of posts about the staff members and volunteers of Champions Special Ministries, which “serves persons with disabilities, their families, and the church through creative, engaging programs and day camps, and helps churches establish relevant ministries to those with Special Needs.”
“God has been teaching me a lot through this whole journey about the power of our ‘yes,’” Alison Gromer said. “When we hear and respond with a ‘yes,’ it changes lives. His work is done, and his kingdom is built.”
Today, Alison is the founder and director of Champions Special Ministries, a provider of summer day camps for children and young adults with special needs. But the power of ‘yes’ is something God has been teaching her since she was a teenager.
When Alison was a freshman in high school, her niece was born with Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder. As her niece grew older, she frequently lived for part of the week with Alison and her parents in order to attend a developmental center for speech and physical therapy.
“I grew up with her in our home and just fell in love with her,” Alison said.
Through her relationship with her niece, Alison developed a deep passion for individuals with special needs, as well as a firm belief in the value and meaningfulness of their lives, regardless of the severity of their disabilities. “[My niece] is nonverbal,” Alison said. “But when she gets to heaven, her life will have touched thousands of people for the kingdom—and she doesn’t utter a word.”
Alison had always known she wanted to be a teacher, and because of her niece, she settled upon becoming a special education teacher. As she attended classes and earned her degree, however, she also began to feel a call to full-time ministry. These two paths eventually collided when she was hired by Colonial Presbyterian Church to begin a special needs program there.
“Statistics show that 80-85% of families [with special needs children] aren’t in the local church because there aren’t services or programs for them. They don’t feel welcomed or understood,” she said. “It’s a huge mission field, a very unchurched group of people.”
During this time, everything Alison and her team did revolved around the idea of sharing the Gospel with these individuals, despite the doubts she sometimes heard expressed about whether a person with a mental disability could grow in faith.
“I know and believe and have seen that they may not have the intellect that we do, but they have a spirit just like we do, and they know Him in spirit and in truth,” Alison said. “They can know and grow in their faith.”
Alison spent five years running and growing the special needs program at Colonial Presbyterian before stepping back in order to raise her four children. Sixteen years later, in 2011, she felt God calling her back to work with special needs individuals once more.
That year, she took a group of high school students from her church to serve at Camp Barnabas, a camp in Missouri for individuals with special needs and chronic illnesses. The following year, Barnabas hired Alison as the director for a new day camp ministry. She helped develop a pilot camp for that summer. Then when finances didn’t allow Barnabas to continue the camp the following year, Alison decided to launch her own day camp, with Barnabas’s blessing and support.
Champions Special Ministries held their first camps in summer of 2013. They hired 14 college students as summer staff who traveled with Alison to host camps at local churches in Kansas City, Durango, Tulsa, and Arlington. Since that first year, they have added camps in Liberty, Missouri, as well as Dallas and Austin.
At Hillcrest Covenant Church in the Kansas City area, Champions also hosts monthly “Night of Champions” events, full of games, crafts, Bible lessons, and worship, to help stay connected with campers during the school year, and they hold occasional “Night on the Town” events too, which provide activities such as sports, bowling, and movies.
Last year, Champions added an international aspect to its camps. In 2014, they hosted a week-long camp in Haiti, and this year, they will be going to Guatemala. “It was a glorious experience,” Alison said. “The amazing thing is that out of my team of 20, three are either [back] in Haiti now or are going this summer…I’m thinking, ‘Wow, what’s going to happen when we go to Guatemala, Lord?’”
The life-changes in her staff are only one of the reasons Alison loves her work at Champions. During the past two summers, she has also seen many examples of the impact the ministry has on the lives of the campers and their families.
The very first camper to arrive at the very first Champions day camp was a man of 71 named Johnny. Alison remember his arrival as a historic moment and how much fun he had all week at camp. Two months after that, Johnny died, but in the days leading up to his death, he was constantly talking about his week at camp.
“It was so encouraging to know that for a moment in time at the end of his life, we were able to extend the love of Jesus and bring him what was maybe the highlight of his life,” she said.
Champions also impacts the families of campers. Last spring, Alison did a camp in Fort Worth, and at the end of the second day of camp, a mother approached her to say, “Do you know what a ministry this is? Last night, my husband and I had a date for the first time in seventeen years. Today, we spent seven hours at a park together. That never happens. Do you realize what a blessing this ministry is?”
Alison was touched by how a simple day camp could so powerfully affect a single family by providing a bit of respite and time for recuperation.
Ultimately, her goal is to help everyone involved in Champions – staff, volunteers, families, and the campers themselves – realize how valuable the campers are.
Every day at a Champions camp starts off with a red carpet welcome. Fun music plays and all of the staff gather to cheer as each camper arrives. Last year, partway through the week, one of the campers turned to her mother as they arrived at camp and said, “Mom, they think I’m famous.”
“That’s our desire – that they feel valued and honored and esteemed,” Alison said.
Champions is not without its challenges. Every year, Alison has to step out in faith when she begins hiring her staff and planning camps at various churches, trusting that the funds and volunteers needed will arrive on time. But over time, that trust has become easier, as Alison has seen God provide again and again and again.
“As I grow in age and in faith in my journey and ministry, I so believe that if we just listen to Him and hear His voice and respond in simple obedience and say, ‘Yes, I’ll take the next step,’ He’s always there, and He’s always faithful. He always comes through.”