Molly and Megan, twin sisters, run into Broken Arrow, First to kick off the second day of Champion’s Camp. Campers are greeted every morning by an enthusiastic tunnel of volunteers and staff.
[Photo by Hannah Hanzel]

BROKEN ARROW—Laughter and music filled the children’s area at Broken Arrow, First, July 23-27 as Champion’s Camp commenced. Short kids, tall kids, little kids and big kids filed into the church through a tunnel of sponsors and volunteers cheering and dancing every morning.

Each kid was a champion. Each kid mattered. And each kid had a special need or handicap.

Champion’s Camp was formed six years ago with the mission to “serve persons with disabilities, their families and the church through creative, engaging programs and day camps, and help churches establish relevant ministries to those with special needs.” The camp utilizes local churches, like Broken Arrow, First, in multiple states to host the program annually. The program requires the host church to assemble volunteers to become “buddies” for each individual camper, assuring one-on-one interaction and attention.

Joni Hanzel, volunteer co-director of the day camp and member at Broken Arrow, First, said of their volunteers, “Our youth especially have jumped both feet in. They have really made this program work and we just couldn’t do it without them.”

Hanzel spoke of the diversity of the volunteers from the church, ranging in age from teenagers to senior adults.

Many of the volunteers come from special needs families themselves. One teenager brought his younger autistic brother with him as a camper, as he volunteered as someone else’s camp buddy.

Kayla Gilliam and Joni Hanzel are the special needs ministry volunteers at Broken Arrow, First.
[Photo by Hannah Hanzel]

Another teenager had the job of simply holding one of the camper’s hands and walking with her all day. Several senior adult volunteers confessed they didn’t know their church had a special needs ministry but heard of the camp and showed up on the first day to help. They said they were hooked.

The beauty of the camp, from volunteers to campers, was the reflection of unity and love. From the moment the campers stepped on campus to the moment they stepped off, they were taught Scripture, engaged in crafts, singing songs, making friends and most importantly, shown Christ.

Talent shows and outdoor water games were exciting activities campers could participate in with their buddies. One camper chose to preach in Spanish for his talent, while another got dressed up and sang.

“There’s nothing like this out there for my son,” said one camper’s mother to Hanzel, both teary eyed. “People always treat him differently. No one loves on him like when I bring him to Champion’s Camp and to church. I just can’t thank you enough.”

Broken Arrow, First not only hosts Champion’s Camp but also reaches out to the special needs community through a program they call “Breathe.”

“Our ministry’s purpose,” said Kayla Gilliam, the church’s special needs coordinator, “is to make the Gospel, the Good News of the coming Kingdom, accessible to all.”

Parents of special needs campers are given a time of respite as their children attend the camp.
[Photo by Hannah Hanzel]

The ministry hosts a Parents’ Night Out the second Friday of every month. On these nights, volunteers care not only for the special needs children, but also their siblings for free.

“It truly gives the parents a night to ‘Breathe,’” Hanzel said. She recalled a single mother who partakes in the program. The mom has four children, two of which are twins with special needs, that she takes to Breathe and then takes the evening to clean her house. Some of the parents make it a night to relax, but many simply appreciate the extra time to accomplish the chores and errands they wouldn’t otherwise have time to do.

Along with Champion’s Camp and Breathe, Broken Arrow, First leads a Sunday morning special needs program. For more information on their program, visit

To learn more about Champion’s Camp, visit