news-category: Christian Service

Senior Nursing Students From Gardner-Webb Serve at Joni and Friends Camp

Lessons Learned Helping Teens with Disabilities Brought Many ‘Shining Moments’

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—Gardner-Webb Hunt School of Nursing offered a new clinical experience this semester—a weekend serving teenagers with disabilities at Camp Caanan in Rock Hill, S.C. The camp was sponsored by Joni and Friends, a Christian organization that focuses on providing normal everyday experiences for people living with disabilities.

Interviews were conducted to select the students for participation in this three-day event that involved each student providing 24-hour care to one or two teens with disabilities. Led by Instructor of Nursing Norma Mott, the group encountered many learning opportunities. “First of all, there was nothing easy about this weekend,” she shared. “We had long hours, bad weather, and non-wheelchair accessible terrain. The students dealt with issues such as scratching, hair pulling, non-verbal communication, and emotional outbursts.”

Despite these circumstances, Mott and the GWU senior nursing students agreed that the rewards were worth every inconvenience. “We got the best hugs, heard some of the most heartfelt prayers, and learned more about airplanes than we ever thought we could,” Mott affirmed. “I learned how to make a ‘cupcake’ out of gluten-free cookies and icing, and saw faith in action in ways that I personally have never had to deal with. We got to read bedtime stories and hear scripture read from a camper’s ‘tiny Bible.’ I could give so many more examples as each student had many shining moments.” 

Mott added that the camp setting required students to utilize a different set of skills. “This event provided the students the opportunity to build relationships with these children and pushed them outside of their comfort zone.” she assessed. “The Hunt School of Nursing shares a philosophy that a Bulldog Nurse CARES; we are Compassionate, Advocates, Respectful, Empathetic, and Servant leaders. The students demonstrated these qualities in every encounter and in ways not always possible in the traditional clinical setting.”

Spencer Hoffman, of Boiling Springs, had previously worked as a camp counselor for two different camps for children with disabilities. She said the camp setting is a less stressful way to encounter and learn how to provide care for children who might be non-verbal, display emotional outbursts, or express suicidal thoughts.

“I never thought I would get to do something like my work at those places again,” she related. “I was paired one-on-one with a camper who had various disabilities for the weekend. My fellow students were given one or two campers depending on the type of disability and level of attention needed for that child.”

Mott noted that the camp schedule looked leisurely—games and crafts, worship and Bible stories, and campfires with S’mores—but the teens required constant attention and supervision, which added intensity. “The students handled the entire weekend professionally and with compassion,” she commented. “They treated each situation as important as it was to the camper. Their teamwork was outstanding. Students were quick to step up anytime there was a need.”  

Samantha “Sam” Zepeda, of Charlotte, N.C., was paired with a camper who had cerebral palsy. “I felt extremely unprepared going into this, but as the hours passed and I navigated small challenges with my camper, I realized how much I’ve grown since I’ve started nursing school,” Zepeda reflected. “My classes have helped me think like a nurse, which is something that has happened so gradually that I sometimes surprise myself with how I handle things now.”

Zepeda continued, “I learned so much from this experience. I was truly holding back tears the entire time I was there. Before this experience…I saw the disability rather than the person and this experience shifted my perspective. We have to see the person, not just the disability—that changes your entire approach towards the differently-abled community.”

Ruth Alabi, also of Charlotte, N.C., echoed her teammate’s comments. “This clinical was an eye-opener for me to treat and care for disabled patients in our community without bias, the same way we will treat and care for patients without disabilities,” she observed. “I learned more about active listening, caring with patience, and building trusting relationships. Also, it gave me the confidence to handle difficult situations. It teaches me that disability is not inability.” 

Ruth Alabi, left, said the Joni and Friends Camp was an eye-opener for her in learning to treat and care for patients.

Joni and Friends Participants

  • Pankti Patel
  • Summer Ofori
  • Spencer Hoffman
  • Maria Rojas
  • Sam Zepeda
  • Karess Williams
  • Casie Simpson
  • Paisley Gilmore
  • Ruth Alabi
  • Katherine Turner

Gardner-Webb University is North Carolina’s recognized leader in private, Christian higher education. A Carnegie-Classified Doctoral/Professional University, GWU is home to nine colleges and schools, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate majors, and a world-class faculty. Located on a beautiful 225-acre campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb prepares graduates to impact their chosen professions, equips them with the skills to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and inspires them to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others. Ignite your future at

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