Paul Freeman glared playfully at Justin Luke, eyeing his orange shirt.
“Justin is a Tennessee fan and I am a fan of whoever is playing against Tennessee,” Freeman said. “He wears orange all the time just to mess with me.”
Sitting in a corner nook in Lawrenceville’s Boulder Creek Coffee, Justin and his parents, Charles and Linda Luke, laughed at the age-old rivalry.
Growing up together at Cannon United Methodist Church, Freeman and Justin, who are both in their 30s, have known each other since they were boys.
Though their paths diverged for a number of years, for the last 15 years, the two have been reunited — as friends, adventurers and teachers to one another.
Justin, who has special needs, is a participant at Freeman’s Camp Caglewood, which the Brookwood High School graduate and his wife, Jessica, founded in 2001.
The program, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, is designed for people with developmental disabilities and offers various adventures each year, which have included trips to SeaWorld, Georgia’s Rock City, the Bahamas and dozens of other locations.
Four adventures for this year were recently announced — a Stone Mountain Park trip in September, a Dollywood trip in July, a Gwinnett Stripers game in June and a Twin Cedar Riding Center excursion in April — which are targeted for campers age 12 to 60.
While the trips are designed for children and adults with special needs, they are also very intentionally aimed at providing a respite for the parents and caregivers of the children and adults with disabilities.
“For the campers, we want it to be something that is an experience that they wouldn’t normally be able to do but allow them to realize that they can do it and expand their independence,” Freeman said. “But also, there’s a lot of added stress on the families that have children or spouses or anybody that has a special need or a medical need or a disability of any kind. Families end in divorce five times as much and there’s an immense guilt, at times, that’s undue, but as parents, if you need that time and your other children need that time and there aren’t good choices, you have a tough choice to make.”
As children with special needs get older, too, there are less and less options for them, Linda Luke said.
“For (Justin’s) age, it’s hard to find things,” she said. “Once they get out of high school, it’s more difficult. We look forward to the trips — I let Justin check the schedule and he picks whichever ones he wants and then (my husband and I) figure, ‘OK, there’s one weekend we have for us.’ Those weekends, we try to do something ourselves. But it’s also a respite (for Justin) from us as much as it is a respite for us.”
That respite is necessary for all parties, Charles Luke said.
“It helps with Justin’s independence and his mindset and it’s helpful for ours,” he said. “There are some strong numbers for couples with children with disabilities — we were told four out of five (marriages) end in divorce, and that was 30-plus years ago. I don’t know what it is now, but that has always resonated with me.”
Freeman said Camp Caglewood is different from many other respite programs for exactly that reason.
“When parents put their children in a respite care program that is not excellent, they feel like they failed, which can cause (more problems),” he said. “Our program is ten times better than anything that anybody else is doing because we’re providing education, we’re providing an unbelievable experience — mainstream children and adults often don’t even get these experiences — and so a program like ours removes that (guilt) barrier. People can not only feel OK with the respite part, but feel good about providing their loved one with an experience that is amazing.”
Smiling, Justin nodded, adding that SeaWorld was one of his most memorable trips.
“We enjoy our time but I also can’t wait to hear what kind of time they had,” Linda said. “They come with all kinds of artwork and stories….”
“And secrets about Paul,” Charles said.
Once again laughing, Freeman looked fondly at the Lukes.
“Justin is literally one of the greatest people I know,” he said, “even though he likes Tennessee; that’s his only fault. Justin and the other campers — and I’m going to get choked up — they are my best friends, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I have a few good friends, but with this group, we share, we laugh and we poke fun. But that’s what it is — it’s the sense of family.”
For more information about Camp Caglewood, visit caglewood.org/15for15.