This is post 2 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.” You can read the story of Champions’ founder, Alison Gromer, here.
The first summer Caroline Coleman helped at a Champions day camp was the summer after her high school graduation. Originally, she had planned to work as a nanny that summer, but encouragement from her friends and family, as well as founder, Alison Gromer, led Caroline to work part of the summer at Champions also.
During her time at camp, Caroline encountered a little girl with Down Syndrome who refused to participate in any of the regular camp activities. Because of her behavioral problems, Caroline ended up spending a lot of time with her that week.
“I guess somehow I saw a little piece of myself in her,” she said. “I do the same thing to God all the time. He’ll say, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ or ‘I want to show you this,’ and I say, ‘No, I don’t want to do it!’”
As a lover of music and worship, Caroline decided to try singing with this little girl, and soon the girl was twirling in circles and singing “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord.”
“Seeing that little girl delight in Him…I’ve always wanted to taste God in the way that it seemed she was tasting Him,” she said. “Knowing I had a place [serving her] and God was using me in that place—it was really sweet of God…that was probably the moment that I realized this was something I was really passionate about.”
This may have been the moment God confirmed Caroline’s work with special needs individuals, but the passion was something that had been growing in her heart for several years. A native of Overland Park, KS, Caroline grew up in “an awesome Christian home,” and when she was entering high school, the opportunity came for her to spend a week serving at Camp Barnabas, a camp in Missouri for individuals with special needs and chronic illnesses.
“I had never really known how to approach individuals with special needs before that,” she said. “It totally changed me…. Because of whatever disabilities they’ve been given, they see things a lot more clearly. They see the kingdom of heaven in a different way than I do.”
Not long after that, Alison Gromer began holding monthly events for people with special needs at Caroline’s church, and she became involved. Next, Alison started a spring break camp, which Caroline participated in both her junior and senior years of high school. Finally, her senior year, she heard about the new Champions day camps, and once she participated in those, she was hooked.
“These parents can get a break, and these kids can have the best times of their lives,” she said. “That’s what we were made for – we were made to encourage other people. The staffers love to encourage the kids, and the parents love it when the kids are encouraged…it’s like a win-win-win situation.”
Today, Caroline sees her love for working with special needs individuals as a life-long calling – a calling that also intersects with her decision to pursue a career in nursing.
“I feel like the future is so unsure all the time, but I would love to adopt a child with special needs,” she said. “I could see how being a nurse, being equipped to take care of my child’s needs, would be really helpful.”
Last year, Caroline acted as the summer program director, which meant that she did much of her work ahead of time, organizing each camp’s structure and planning activities. This year, she will spend more time working directly with the staff by planning discipleship times at the end of each day. Regardless of the role she holds, however, Caroline has come to expect every camp to be a time of stretching and growing.
“I love to be in charge, and I love to be right,” she said. “But with camp, you never know how things are going to work out. I have learned and am still learning how to be humble in those moments and how to be flexible. It has been really good and also very hard.”
Last summer held challenges for Caroline’s personal life as well. Years ago, when Caroline was in Kindergarten, her mom was diagnosed with renal cell kidney cancer. She went through treatment, but the cancer returned again when Caroline was in 3rd grade. And again when she was in 5th grade. And again just this past summer.
“She hadn’t had cancer in six or seven years,” she said. “It really hit me, and I wasn’t expecting it.”
At that point, she was still on a spiritual high from her first week at Champions, so she tried to look for what God might want her to learn from the experience. The answer came through watching a community of believers encircle her family with love and care during her mom’s resumed struggle with cancer.
“I kind of got to remember where I came from,” she said. This group had taken care of her and her sister during her mom’s previous bouts with cancer. Now, as a young adult, she watched them do the same thing.
“They shaped me. I had looked up to these adults and seen how they had pursued God…it was a unique moment for me – to know that God is faithful, no matter what. I got to know that on a whole different level, which made me want to pursue Him on a whole different level.”
For now, pursuing God means finishing her degree and working with Champions this coming summer.
“I feel like God has given me certain skills that are going to be used in this area,” Caroline said. “Champions is perfect for this time in my life.”