If you have ever been on a mission trip, you will understand how hard it is to put the experience into words.
As mentioned in the previous post, on July 8th, we surprised Martha, Henri and Chloe with the news that we were headed to Florida to attend a Lighthouse Family Retreat. We had an amazing experience.
The retreat is held at a condominium complex in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. The ocean is just across the street. We were given our own condo unit to stay in for the week. At the center of the complex is a large field. Lighthouse set up tents and tables and all of our meals were served there.
Lighthouse matches up family partners with each retreat family (retreat families are families who have lived through childhood cancer or who are in the midst of treatment). In addition to their full time staff and summer staff, there were many families who volunteered to serve the retreat families for the week. The retreat families were outnumbered at least 2 to 1. That is a lot of support!
Each morning we would get up and head out to breakfast (which was cooked and served by the volunteers). Our family partner would greet us, make sure we were all set with breakfast and disappear to clean our room and do our laundry! Soon after they would join us at breakfast.
Breakfast was followed by a short devotional time.
After breakfast, the kids headed off to Flip Flop, which was a fun time of swimming, playing games and doing crafts.
The retreat family parents headed off to Common Grounds. This was a time in which we could share our stories. It was such a good feeling to connect with people who have been through a similar experience. Even though the children faced different kinds of cancer, different treatments and different struggles along the way, we were each able relate to one another's stories. It did not take long to form a bond with these families.
Common Grounds was followed by lunch, usually donated by a local restaurant. One of the days, we had our first taste of Chick-fil-A! Most of the volunteers were southerners and were shocked that we had never tried it before. They had such fun introducing it to us, right down to the sweet tea!
After lunch we were given time as a family, time to rest, to swim in the pool, to play in the ocean or to do some sight seeing. We connected so well with our family partners, that we usually spent some of this time with them.
Dinners were always a surprise. On Italian Night, we were seated at candle-lit tables and the volunteers came out dressed in black and white, dancing across the field, ready to serve the main course. There was also a "date night"for the parents. Our family partners came to our condo, served the kids dinner and took them to a movie and ice cream party, while we enjoyed our special dinner. There was a talent show (the kids rehearsed all week during Flip Flop). The last night was a slide show and dance party.
Lighthouse has built quite a network of support in the 30A corridor of the Florida panhandle. In addition to the donated lunches, a local restaurant, Pizza by the Sea, treated the parents to a night out. Frost Bites, a shaved ice shop in Seaside gave free shaved ice to all of the retreat families and volunteers (if you saw the photos I posted on facebook, you've seen that Frost Bites became one of our favorite places!).
One of the things that surprised and amazed me were the volunteers, children as well as adults. I have never seen a group of people so service oriented. Retreat families always ate first. Once we were a little late to lunch and we lined up behind some volunteers. When they saw our white ID bracelets, they stepped aside and waited until we had been served. Another time the kids were playing a game. One boy notice that Henri was watching. He asked Henri is he wanted to play and took himself out of the game so that Henri could participate. It was a busy week, especially busy for the volunteers. Not once did I hear complaining or crankiness. The volunteers were so generous and loving, true servants. They were an inspiration to our family.
For the first time in a long time, we had nothing to think about other than enjoying time with our family. We laughed and played. We looked for shells and crabs. We watched the sun rise and set. We saw rainbows. We watched turtles and frogs. We swam and tried out a Stand Up Paddle board. We danced and sang.
It was really hard to leave. It was hard to say goodbye and leave our new friends. It was hard to leave the ocean and the feeling of truly being on vacation, without a care in the world. It was hard to cut off that ID bracelet. We are already thinking about returning next year as a volunteer family.
In the meantime, we hope to bring a little of that inspiration, joy and carefree spirit of the Lighthouse Family Retreat into our every day.