A Story of Thanksgiving

Meet Mike & Allison Ponsell of Morgantown, PA, along with their children, Emmett, 6 and Aila, 4 ½. Allison began attending cabin camp at Camp Hebron as a 9 year old, and continued on until she was 15. When Allison turned 16 she spent the summer working with the horsemanship staff.  

Fast forward 24 years. Emmett had reached 4, Aila was 2 and the family was in the midst of challenging times. The Ponsell’s were being supported in post-adoption services in part through Bethany Christian Services (a Camp Hebron partner), and learned about Family Camp – Adoption Focus. They decided to give it a try, feeling that a weeklong opportunity to establish relationships with other adoptive families was very appealing. Giving Emmett a chance to develop relationships with fellow adoptees was another goal. Having adult devotional time, age groups for the kids to socialize & make friends, and an all-in-one vacation with meals provided, dishes done & lots of activities for all ages was an extra bonus!

The day in July came when the family was to arrive at camp, and they were in crisis. Between on-going challenges with Emmett related to adoption, as well as some newly-emerging extra needs & information, both Allison and Mike had anxiety about Emmett’s particular challenges and how things would go during a week of camp. The MANY comfort-of-bed-and-home accouterments packed for Emmett did not inspire hope – and Mike & Allison were a mess!

The family arrived at Camp Hebron late on Sunday, after already having had a challenge with Emmett.  By Monday morning, the feeling of crisis had grown. Both children were not separating for age groups with the counselors, and Emmett was desperately clinging to Allison and “literally freaking out” about separating. None of the family had slept well – an ongoing issue – and challenges with Mike’s hearing impairment were not making it any easier. 

The Ponsell’s consulted with the supervising Bethany staff person, who developed a plan to help Emmett separate. Specific counselors were engaged to help both Aila and Emmett. The family hadn’t realized until that time that Bethany had given special training related to adoptive families to all the camp counselors during staff training, and again immediately prior to the week of Family Camp, covering challenges with adoptive kiddos as well as families with special needs.

As Allison states, “We were so incredibly thankful & impressed by the camp & Bethany staff throughout that entire first week of camp!!! Counselors worked tirelessly through Emmett’s meltdowns during separation from me, during age groups & throughout activities during the entire week. Only because of them were we able to go to the adult dinner, ladies tea, a few adult activities, and some together as a date without the kids (it had been a long time). 

While Allison cries a bit more easily and Mike hardly at all, both were crying at the end of the week, having been “so blessed by the staff who gave selflessly all week, without complaining or even any visible attitude or resentment.” Allison says “They were always near to lend a hand, whether it was at meals, at the lake, or at the pool. While Emmett doesn’t often talk positively about how he feels about things, even after the first summer, he now asks when we are going back to Family Camp!!  Aila does too!”

Allison continues on to say “Our first week of Family Camp left enough of an impression on us that we have continued to keep it as part of our summer vacation since then. Family Camp has been very instrumental in Emmett’s maturation & development, as well as all of us connecting with fellow adoptive families.  We were just at a family camp reunion this week, thankful to be connecting with our friends during the year and not just during the summer.  All of the camp staff present commented on the changes they saw in Emmett.  One in particular talked about the difference from Emmett’s first summer at camp to now, 3 years later: That first summer he had been withdrawn, had trouble separating, grunted & growled at staff, was unable to hardly eat, much less in the dining hall, was unable & unwilling to participate in very many activities, and “shut down” participation in anything after 3 days at camp. This summer, and particularly this week, Emmett ran to play with the other kids, separated a little better, talked more to the other kids, counselors & adults, was able to eat in the dining hall, was more confident & regulated, and was hardly ever heard grunting or growling.  From this past spring to this fall, there has been a huge difference in Emmett’s confidence & personality development.  We believe this is in part because of Family Camp with the Bethany & camp staff.

We are so incredibly blessed by the opportunity to connect with God, adoptive families, camp & Bethany staff at Family Camp!!! That they are able to see some of the worst of our kids & families at times & then care, love on our kids with humility & selflessness, and also give us breaks throughout the week is a rare gift!!!  God willing, Family Camp will continue to be part of our summer vacation for many years.”

Thank you to the Ponsell family for sharing their story and being a special part of Camp Hebron!