My family and I recently attended the Gilmont Circle of Friends camp for the first time. I can only describe this weekend and experience as life changing in the most positive and impactful way. I have two sons, one just turned 10 and has autism and the other is neurotypical and 7 years old. This is the first time that our entire family has ever gone on a trip or an outing where all of us were able to relax and have fun.
Usually one parent is “on alert” for needs or redirection. It is rare to be able to focus completely on a conversation. This camp is a beautiful safe space where I don’t have to worry that my son gets too close to peoples’ faces or gets excited and is loud and jumping around. He can be his vibrant unfiltered self and do all the things a neurotypical kid would do at camp like canoe, swim, and zip line- which he did and loved! I trusted the camp staff (buddies) with my kids more than I trust some of my family members, they were wonderful and even sent us pictures of our boys throughout the day.
Most of the time if we asked the boys if they wanted to do something with us the answer was no- they wanted to do it with their buddy. My husband and I in turn were able to have uninterrupted conversations with other adults- to us this is a rare pleasure. We were able to discuss challenges and victories and worship with people that get our day to day life like few families do.
It was amazing, so beyond what I could have ever hoped or expected and I cannot thank you enough. My boys cried when we had to leave and still miss their “best friend” they made at camp. It still makes me tear up to think of what a wonderful experience it was for them and my entire family and we are all so excited to come back again. This camp gave us an opportunity to put aside our struggles and embrace our differences, it was a reminder that we are wonderfully and fearfully made.
By Kenny Rigoulot, Executive Director of Development and Spiritual Formation
Reflections as we welcome a new gathering space at Gilmont in honor of Blake Stephens
When you visit the new Hammock Circle at Gilmont, bring a friend or make a new one when you get there! And don’t miss the sprinkles of glitter mixed in with the soil underfoot. Surely some of the pranksters who loved giving Blake glitter gifts - knowing how much he hated the stuff - have been there before you, laughing as they leave some glitter dust behind.
Losing Blake Stephens was extraordinarily difficult for all of us who knew him. Camp is a place where bonds of friendship are woven over the course of time. Blake Stephens loved and experienced Camp Gilmont as a camper, counselor, bible study leader, and board member. He enjoyed performing skits and singing songs around the campfire, playing games and doing activities, leading bible study and worship, and sleeping under the stars in a hammock. Because of Blake’s love for hammocking at the camp, Gilmont decided to build a hammock circle in his honor.
When Ronnie Spradlin (longtime friend of the camp from Kilgore) learned that Gilmont was planning to build and dedicate a hammock circle in honor of Blake Stephens, he donated the center pole, 12 posts, concrete, and hardware for the project. Members of First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore along with family and friends joined in to fund the project - with additional gifts set aside to provide scholarships for campers and special projects at the camp.
Several volunteers from First Presbyterian Church in Garland worked with Blake’s family and friends to help the Gilmont staff build the hammock circle with a special dedication service along with Rev. Jen Mitchell, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Corsicana, who grew up with Blake. She shared her hope that the hammock circle will be a circle of hope, where all are invited.
The Hammock Circle holds significance as a place to remember Blake for many reasons, with one little story being particularly special. When working with me on this past year’s summer camp curriculum - The Tree of Life - we discussed how it is a symbol of hope for healing, life, and love - in this life and the next. According to tradition, the Tree of Life is so enormous that it would take 500 years to climb it. Blake’s comment at the time was, “just imagine how many hammocks you could fit on it!”
There is plenty of room for all of God’s children under the shade of the tree of life. Gilmont hopes the hammock circle will be a space where children, youth, and adults will gather to visit, sing silly songs, and have deep theological conversations; a place where individuals can rest and relax; a place where people will look up and see the wind blow through the trees, clouds dance, and stars light up the sky; a safe, sacred space where all are invited to grow closer to God, creation, others, and themselves; and, a place where those that knew and loved Blake will know that he is with God and God is with them.
Greetings from Gilmont!
My name is Kenny Rigoulot and my wife and I are the new Executive Directors at Gilmont! Jennifer was a public school teacher and I was a pastor of a Presbyterian congregation when we felt called by God to serve as Directors of the camp where we met, where we have served in various roles, and where our kids have had formative faith experiences. Jennifer and I are familiar with many of Gilmont’s programs, staff, participants, partners and supporters - but there are many of you and many, many things that we don’t know about Gilmont. Every day is a new adventure with many new discoveries.
It is hard to believe that we have already been here a month. So much has happened in so little time!
*My family and I moved in while some of our awesome summer camp staff volunteered to host a wonderful Winter Retreat! Jennifer and I unpacked boxes and settled in at the house in between visits with volunteers and participants. The snowmen made out of our wooden name tags were adorable and the fireworks were spectacular!
*After getting the house in order, we rearranged and organized the office with the help of our amazing office staff. We are so grateful for all of the work that our staff, board members, and volunteers put into getting the house and camp ready for us!
*We had Circle of Friends on Martin Luther King, Jr weekend for the first time. I knew that James Hilliard was passionate about Circle of Friends and now I know why! Children with special needs and their siblings were each partnered with a buddy and enjoyed all kinds of camp activities, while their parents had the opportunity to rest, relax, share stories, resources, laughter and tears. Our teenagers, Kennan and Brayden, volunteered to help with activities for the kids, while our youngest, Grayson, helped me start a fire and play games with the adults!
*During our Board Retreat, we welcomed 13 new board members, with various skill sets and ties to Gilmont. The energy and excitement from our board that met in person and online was palpable. Many of our task forces are already tackling projects to be completed soon, as well as sharing dreams for the future. If you are interested in helping with various tasks around camp, let us know!
*We welcomed representatives from several of our Member Churches at our annual meeting, where we celebrated 80 years of ministry, highlighting this past year in which we had a smaller, but successful summer camp program, as well as the incredible blessing of hosting 80 evacuees from Evergreen Life Services (which provides homes and care for adults with special needs) after their homes in Lake Charles were destroyed by Hurricane Laura.
*Inspired by Clay Brantley’s poem (read it here), the board has come up with a new mission statement. Please let us know what you think before we start putting it on our letterhead and t-shirts!
Gilmont strives to be a safe, sacred place where all are invited to grow closer to God, creation, others and themselves.
Jennifer and I hope to see you at camp sometime soon! In the meantime, please pray for Gilmont and let us know how we can be in prayer for you.
Thanks and God Bless,
Rev. Kenny Rigoulot