FORT GORDON, Ga. -- On July 23, eight families from Fort Gordon, Ga., set out for a Strong Bonds "Great Adventure" at Great Wolf Lodge, Concord, N.C. (Indoor Water Park). This was an adventure like none before; it was the very first EFMP Strong Bonds Retreat. There were Army and Navy families, single parent families, and a family who had their loved one (spouse) currently deployed. The variety of "family" types underscored that special needs issues know no rank or boundaries. Special needs children and the EFMP program directly touch so many military families. This population is rapidly growing and will not stop.

Chaplain (Col.) Craig Wiley, Fort Gordon installation chaplain, sponsored this outing and Chaplain (Maj.) Eugene Mack, Family Life, coordinated and personally led our renewal and fellowship. The retreat was the result of a suggestion that occurred about a year ago at an EFMP meeting that focused on the families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other special needs. EFMP manager Pam Rachel and Julie Reyes, a mother of a child diagnosed with ASD, currently facilitate this post support group. During these meetings many family members expressed difficulties in availing themselves of the "Strong Bonds" family experience due to their children's specific special needs and circumstances. Specifically, they felt that there was no solution for adequate child care and the opportunity to break away from their children to attend the training would be impossible. The idea and need for such a program became a mission and a quest for Reyes. In January 2010 she approached Wiley with the idea. He responded positively, got the wheels in motion, and provided our EFMP group with much needed spiritual support at our monthly meetings.

The focus of the retreat was to bring together EFMP families that share a common bond and to promote learning, support, encouragement and fellowship, and for parents to further strengthen their marriages and relationships in order to continue the good fight against those special needs that afflict their family.

Waveen Mack, wife of Eugene, and his assistant Spc. Brittani McGawion pre-coordinated all the rooms and necessary amenities prior to the families' arrival. During our orientation dinner, they greeted all the families, ensured that we arrived safely, and provided our necessary lodging keys and meal vouchers. Needless to say, the accommodations, meals and venue were terrific and kid friendly.

Child care was provided, complete with lots of toys for all the various age groups, an arts and crafts table and even a Wii for the older kids. During dinner we picked up a special "Getting to Know You" worksheet for the families to complete for the childcare givers so that they would understand and be aware of the specific issues and needs that our children might have.

On July 24 we had a discussion and exchange about the challenges of being a "special needs family", led by Julie and Col. DJ Reyes. We learned that families of children with ASD and other disorders experience chronic stress similar to that of our combat Soldiers. Per Marsha Mailick Seltzer who authored the studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "The mothers of children with high levels of behavior problems have the most pronounced physiological profile of chronic stress; the long term effect on their physical health is not yet known."

The entire group participated in a discussion that addressed common challenges they face daily. These included: judgment by others, misunderstandings, isolation, fear, worry, guilt, sorrow, a sense of loss, time constraints, worry about the child's future, worry for the siblings, not enough time for the special needs child, effects on the marriage, not enough funding or money to put towards therapy, etc.

In addition, Julie shared that many studies indicate that siblings of other special needs siblings have some very special needs themselves and that they are often times overlooked and underserverved as a group. "The siblings will be in the lives of the special children longer than anyone else, long after "special education" and various therapies are completed. Siblings also face many of the very same issues and concerns of the parents, yet do not have any support group whatsoever with peers and many times are not told, or do not understand what is happening and why, which may lead to many more issues" advised Julie. We discussed how important it is to recognize every member of the family as an individual, and that the experiences they have are different from their "typical peers". They are many times "wise beyond their years" and they too make many sacrifices. They suffer the losses of playing with their brother or sister, the dynamics of a typical sibling relationships, and parent time and guidance. They often feel the sting of guilt, resentment, worry, and embarrassment.

However, the groups also expressed the joys of seeing their special needs children progress and succeed at mastering skills, graduating from schools, and participating with "typical" children. As a result, the entire family unit learns by default - appreciation for diversity, tolerance, patience, insight and social competence is developed as well.

DJ helped the football fans in the crowd further relate to the challenges of special needs families by using a football analogy to further illustrate how the Reyes family, "offensive team Reyes," deals with the myriad of day to day challenges, "defensive team," and how the Reyes' leverage the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center, therapists, teachers, support groups, EFMP, Tricare and chaplain programs, "coaches, booster clubs, and supporters," to maximize their special needs child's, "half back," potential to progress, "gain positive yardage," every single day.

The second day commenced with a call to worship service by Eugene where he reminded us that our daily trials are helping to build our endurance. He reflected on scripture that was appropriate and meaningful to each family. Romans 5:3-4 declares that we glory in tribulations, knowing that this produces perseverance, and thus character, and ultimately hope.

It became very clear that there is a substantial difference between strength and endurance and that to be joyful, to find the joys in this time of profound sadness and endure the lengthy journey we must develop a spirit of endurance not just strength. We must do this with all of our relationships and with each other. We discussed having faith and hope and just how important having hope means.

He eloquently described the critical need for very strong relationships and enduring the daily emotional challenges of an EFMP family. Eugene focused on the foundation of a healthy marriage. We discussed the pillars of the foundation; physical, emotional, commitment, and community. We completed the session with a fun group exercise called "Build a better Tower" and the competitive spirit of each group quickly emerged. We had to build a three dimensional tower that was over five feet in height, could stand unassisted and withstand a "slight breeze", and could be moved at least 12-feet off the ground without falling apart. We were provided three large sheets of paper, three paper plates, three straws, four foam cups, and tape. We had limited time for planning and building. At the end of the exercise, we had to place ourselves in first name alphabetical order without asking each other's name out loud. Clearly, this team exercise demonstrated the facts that "life is busy, so take the time to build relationships, have fun, communicate and get to know each other, and enjoy life!"

This weekend was filled with emotion, spirituality, family bonding, and much needed opportunities for renewal and faith.

A quote from one of the families after this retreat weekend best summed it up: "Thank you for lifting up my morale and recognizing that parents of special needs children neglect themselves for the care of their family. My family needed this retreat more than I can express in words and actions. To you commander I thank you, and ask you to consider this annually for members of the EFMP program..."