Lutherans in the Twin Cities, Uncategorized

Edina Community Lutheran Church airport volunteers experience short term mission; long term impact

Many parents sending their children to summer camp for the first time have a reasonable amount of anxiety. For parents with special needs children, this anxiety is often increased. Volunteers from Edina Community Lutheran Church (ECLC), an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Edina, Minnesota, have made the trip to summer camp a bit easier for parents with special needs children.

For the past 16 years, ECLC has sent volunteers to do airport pick ups and drop offs for campers headed to and from Camp Knutson, a special needs camp located in Crosslake, Minnesota, about 150 miles north of Minneapolis.

Volunteer greeter Jodi Harpstead welcomes a Camp Knutson participant at the airport. Greeters ease the transition time from participants' arrival at the airport through their departure for the camp.

Volunteer greeter Jodi Harpstead welcomes a Camp Knutson participant at the airport. Greeters ease the transition time from participants' arrival at the airport through their departure for the camp.

In their 2009 annual report, Camp Knutson, an affiliate of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, called the airport volunteers “an example of this compassionate community of support for the kids.”

Some campers arrive in wheelchairs. They may come alone or with a caregiver. For many, the trip to camp is the first time they have been away from their families. The volunteers are often the child’s first contact for their camping experience.

Dan Mason, a former director of Camp Knutson, and his wife Caroline, have led the volunteer airport pick up effort from the beginning. “These kids are very brave to go off on their own,” Caroline says. “It reassures them and their families that there is someone there to meet them.”

ECLC airport volunteers specifically escort children and teens who will attend the skin disease camp. In 1993, Camp Knutson developed the program for campers with severe, and often life-threatening and/or disfiguring, skin diseases. Through a partnership with the American Academy of Dermatology that also provides doctors and nurses on site, campers are able to come to Camp Knutson for a week at no cost.

As these children are often isolated in their own communities, the week at camp gives them a network of friends. Since many suffer from very rare diseases, it also allows them to meet other kids who are like them.

Through their connections with the camp, the Masons learned about this skin disease program and approached then-ECLC pastor Mark Hanson about creating the airport pick up volunteer program. For each summer since 1994, volunteer groups have picked up and dropped off groups of campers.

Bring on the welcome

Through the airport pick-up program, volunteers agree to meet the campers at their gate, bring them to a central meeting place, and escort them safely to a bus that will take them to camp. Quickly, the campers bond with each other and with the volunteers.

“They bond up pretty quickly,” Caroline says. “The kids are so sweet. They’ve been through so much; they don’t take anything for granted. They have a spirituality unlike other kids.”

As these children are often isolated in their own communities,
the week at camp gives them a network of friends.

About 60 volunteers take part each summer, with about half coming from outside the ECLC community. Through the program, volunteers will spend about three hours at the airport meeting flights and socializing with the kids.

A long established tradition at ECLC, the program is an opportunity in the slower, summer days for members to remain actively involved in the community. Pastor Pam Fickenscher calls the airport runs a “hands on way to serve.”

“The volunteers get to serve together and meet with kids who are about to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Fickenscher says. “The airport volunteering is great because it’s a short commitment, not hours and hours. Volunteers get a very clear sense of mission from that. It is very inherently rewarding for those who do it.”

Many volunteers enjoy the program so much that they return several years in a row, including some who have volunteered every summer since 1994.

“Many volunteers come back year after year because it’s so exciting to see [these kids] so happy,” Dan says.

Marie Wilson remembers doing the airport pick up program with her parents, John and Victoria, as a child. Three years ago ECLC members encouraged Wilson, a college student, to apply for a scholarship from the American Academy of Dermatology to serve at the camp. Having received the scholarship, this summer will mark her third season as a counselor.

Wilson says she has returned to Camp Knutson year after year because “it sounds kind of cliché, but it’s the kids.”

At Camp Knutson, the staff is given the chance to “act as Christ would toward these people who would not normally be treated as well as they should,” she says.

“These are kids who are on the edge,” Dan says. “At Camp Knutson, they are brought to the center. The airport volunteers only see the kids for a little bit of time, but still, they remember them.”

Those interested in volunteering to meet and greet young people attending Camp Knutson at the airport can contact Dan Mason at masondkc@aol.com.