A Selfless Love for Kids with Special Needs
It’s Saturday and volunteers gather at Cone Oasis Baptist Camp in La Feria to prepare for a three-day camp dedicated to kids with special needs hosted by Cristo Vive International — CVI. Here, parents have the exclusive opportunity to entrust their children to a dedicated and loving staff who put themselves second to serve them in a way not normally seen in society. Already a trusted camp in the community, parents say they have no worries about leaving their children overnight for a time well spent with friends, fun, and learning about the gospel.
Cristo Vive International began in 1998, when ministry directors Gene and Jordana (Quintero) Engebretsen gathered a team of college students and traveled to Quito, Ecuador, for the first CVI camp. That first summer, the camp hosted 16 campers with Down syndrome. Since then, CVI has traveled to Kenya, Ireland, Mongolia, Ukraine, and, more recently, here in the United States. According to its website, CVI now has camps in Idaho, Texas, and Alaska. Jordana, being blind herself, has instilled joy and hope in the hearts of many children, parents, and volunteers through her dedication to loving kids outcast or ostracized by their peers, community, and sometimes even their family. Cristo Vive International aims to break the stigma of exclusion and incorporate a refreshing acceptance with a loving atmosphere for these children. In 2011, Crystal Galvan, a certified special education teacher, decided to organize a Cristo Vive International camp in Edinburg, and has successfully directed a camp every year since. Now under the management of Mayra Espinal, kids right here in the Valley are getting to experience the love, kindness, and freedom of spending some nights on their own and learning about Jesus.
Cristo Vive International gathers at one of several local camping sites for three full days for a retreat that provides children with an opportunity to experience the love of God in a safe environment. Each camper is provided an individual camp counselor who stays with them the entirety of the camp. Together, camp counselors lead music, crafts, outdoor camping activities, talent shows, and an overall chance to bond with other children experiencing a life with special needs. Parents say they’re thankful that a camp like this exists in the Valley and witness phenomenal results in their children after attending.
“I like the fact that I know she’s safe here,” said Apryle Pelshaw, a parent whose daughter has attended Cristo Vive camps for six years. “There’s not many places we let her go by herself, this is one of them she looks forward to every year. And I have no worries — I know she’s being taken care of and I know she’s learning about God at her level and it sticks with her. The songs, the friendships, all of it she remembers from when she was little and she loves it.”
Apryle recognized the importance of such a camp in the community.
“It’s a place where kids with special needs can grow, learn, run, and be excited and nobody sees them as different,” she said. “She’s never had a bad experience here.”
Apryle’s daughter, Autumn Pelshaw, added her favorite parts about camp.
“I just like coming here and having fun, meeting other new people and hanging out with my counselors,” she said. “I already know all the songs and moves to the songs!”
Parents and children aren’t the only ones benefiting from the trusting and loving environment — where the camp motto for volunteer counselors is “be a friend.” The counselors say the chance to selflessly care for someone has drastically changed their life and unmasked radical heart changes needed to start loving others more than themselves.
“I don’t think there’s a better way to experience how to put yourself second than this place,” said Dago Rodriguez, a returning camp counselor of five years. “It’s crazy because I never believed in my life that God could use me to change somebody’s life. Then I volunteered at a camp. We often view ourselves as the ones with limitations, but it makes it worthy to know that you can be used somewhere. I encourage people who are looking for somewhere to be truly useful and selfless: Here’s the place for that.”
A camp like this offers a group in the population a chance to be valued for who they are, not for what they can give. Many of the children who attend are unable to care for themselves, yet are welcomed with open arms at camp.
“Sometimes a lot of people see them as a disturbance. Someone they struggle with,” said Perla Frias, a certified special education teacher and a returning camp counselor. “But here they aren’t viewed that way. Here we love them, we give them time and affection, and it’s important for the families of the Valley that they have a place where they know their kids are going to be well taken care of and loved. Here they are in good hands and learning about God on their level.”
Frias explained that her personal experience as a volunteer with CVI has taught her to be more responsible alongside being unwaveringly selfless.
“At camp it’s all about them, not about you,” she said. “You come here to help them but they end up teaching you a lot about love, encouragement, hope, and faith.”
For more information on how you can give to this ministry or volunteer with Cristo Vive International, visit the website at cristovive.net or visit the CVI Facebook under
RGV – Cristo Vive International Camps.
“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” 1 John 3:18