“It’s one of those things, life just kind of happens. I happen to believe that everybody has a purpose. You often don’t know what your purpose is until you start down the path of life and one experience leads to another, doors of opportunity open. A lot has to do with the choices that you make,” says Rev. Charlie Chivers of Waupaca, about the path he and his wife Debbie took to create Special Touch Minstry in 1982.
The vision of Special Touch Ministry, Inc. is “to provide faith-based support and response to the needs that arise in the disability community.”
To help explain how he and his wife came up with the idea to create Special Touch Ministry, he shared a story about when he was in college.
“When I was in college, I had the opportunity to meet a wealthy businessman in downtown Minneapolis who had some disabilities,” Charlie recalls. “Even though he had a great amount of success, what the world might call success, he was torn apart inside. He wasn’t emotionally healthy. He wasn’t mentally healthy. The disability had devastated him in so many ways. The day we met, he was planning on taking his life. Through that friendship I developed with him, I told him, ‘You just can’t do this, there has to be hope from this disability, let’s find out what it is.’
“Just building that friendship and relationship with me and helping him address some of the spiritual questions. … Through that support you find out there is a lot worth living for.”
Chivers was studying ministry at the time in the seminary and admits there were a lot of different areas he could have ventured into.
“We thought if there was one like him, there had to be hundreds, maybe thousands [more],” Chivers says. “We decided to find out who they are and where they lived, what their needs were.”
This led to the formation of Special Touch Ministry in 1982. It was operated as a general program until 1990 when it was turned into a nonprofit organization. “Special Touch Ministry is an organization that serves the concerns of people with disabilities. Our mission is to ease and enrich the lives of people who are impacted by disabilities, Chivers says.”
“We held our first camp down here at Spencer Lake Christian Center [in Waupaca], and 32 people showed up at that first camp,” Chivers recalls. “That included our volunteer staff so we started very small. We had about 15 staff workers and 12-15 guests. That first year we had a successful week. Lives were impacted in a positive way. Our volunteers, never having any experience with people with disabilities, went home thinking this is a people group I shouldn’t be afraid of. They are just like me, they just have different needs.”
The weeklong camps are officially called summer getaways. “We bill it as a retreat vacation, premier experience for people with disabilities. The reason we say premier is because we give them the absolute best we can give them,” Chivers says.
Since the first summer getaway in 1982, each getaway has gotten bigger. There were 64 people at the second summer getaway. That increased to 129 the following year and then 250 the year after that. Now the yearly, weeklong summer getaway at Spencer Lake Christian Center in Waupaca attracts 350-400 participants each year. It is one of the largest disability camps in the country according to Chivers.
As it is with most successful endeavors, others heard about the success of Special Touch Ministry.
“In 1986 there was a group of people, some folks with disabilities, their families and also some ministers who had heard what we were doing here who said, ‘We have disabled people in Illinois, would you be willing to come and do something like that here?’ We agreed and we duplicated ourselves in Illinois. We had exponential growth and it’s basically been world of mouth since then.”
Special Touch Ministry now hosts summer getaways in 11 states. Chivers points out that all the coordinators for the summer getaways in other states come to Waupaca for training.
“We develop a leadership structure,” Chivers says. “Anytime you begin to grow you have to stay somewhat organized so you stay true to your mission and keep everybody on track. As we got much larger, we realized we needed to bring more structure, so we began bringing people here for annual training events.
“My wife and I are the founders and directors of the ministry. What we do is oversee all the programs nationwide. We duplicate ourselves. We provide training to coordinators. We bring them here to our birthing grounds right here in Waupaca. The largest camp is right here, so this is where they come to train. We do hands on training with them at our camp here in Wisconsin which usually takes place the third week in June. That’s the requirement. We walk them through the process then we basically duplicate ourselves through those leaders in those states.”
Since its beginning, Special Touch Ministry has served more than 100,000 people, Chivers says. In addition to the summer getaway program, Special Touch Ministry has also branched out and developed Special Touch Chapters of America.
“Our chapters become a local extension of our main organization,” Chivers says. “The chapters have become structured basically for instance through which some of our programs and services can flow. Chapters have at minimum monthly meetings. They are similar to support groups, but it’s beyond just support – it’s building friendships and relationships.”
Currently there are 16 chapters, with another 50 in the process of researching starting a chapter.
“Our goal is to have about 1,000 chapters [throughout the United States] within the next five years,” Chivers says.
For more information about Special Touch Ministry, visit www.specialtouch.org.