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Thanksgiving tribute: Thankful for the life of Justin Thompkins

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Meeting Justin Thompkins during the summer of 2002 while volunteering at Camp Barnabas in Purdy, Missouri was the most life-changing experience I’d ever had at the time, and a week I still often reflect back on today. I'd been recruited to work at Camp Barnabas initially as a result of the outreach night sponsored at Baptist Student Union at Holmes Community College (Goodman, Mississippi). The week of August 6, I was assigned to be Justin’s counselor. Camp Barnabas specializes in children with disablities and Justin was attending the week geared towards people with visual impairment. Justin was blind, and he also had neurofibromatosis, which meant he had tumors growing in his head causing his face to be deformed. The tumors had effected his whole head, leaving him deaf in one ear. The tumors had put pressure on his airway too, requiring him to need a trache to breathe.

I’d seen the pictures of Justin, who was age 12 at the time. I’d seen his deformed face, and I’d come to assume that he must be a very somber little boy. I sure would be, if I’d had to go through life blind, partially deaf, deformed and breathing through a trache. But the night before Justin arrived, I was beginning to alter my expectations. Staffers were asking me that evening who my camper was going to be and when I told them, they would grin and say, “You’re the luckiest person here this week.”

When Justin arrived, “somber” was the one thing he was absolutely not. When he got off the charter bus that had taken him from St. Louis, I greeted him at the bottom and told him my name. He patted me on the head and said, “Why are you so short?” With that, I knew it would be a fun week. The first thing Justin wanted to do was go to his cabin and unload all of his stuff. He asked me if there was a c.d. player in the cabin and when I told him there was, he proceeded to put his Chubby Checker c.d. in and do the twist. After that, he asked if we could go to the water fountain on the main path and fill up his water gun. He wanted to go attack his brother, who was in the conference room. By the time he’d been at camp 15 minutes, he’d done the twist, soaked his brother, and convinced me that I was in for the ride of my life this week at camp.

There were plenty of lighthearted moments that week. One night when our cabin was an absolute wreck, he thought it would be funny if he took his hearing aid out and tossed it across the room. It took us forever to find it and I rebuked him pretty hard for that, but he thought it was hilarious. Justin, whose vision enabled him to still see colors, was quick to correct you if you ever used the word “blind” in reference to him. He loved the blob as much as anything else at camp. The blob was a big balloon like structure at the swimming pool that you could jump on to off a diving board. You’d land on the blob, crawl to the corner of it and the next person to jump down would send you sailing into the water. Because of his trache, Justin couldn’t do the blob in the traditional way, but he loved to get lowered down on to the blob and be caught by someone below waiting for him.

To safeguard against him accidentally falling into the water, both sides of the blob were lined with tall people, Justin’s “blob crew.” He got the biggest kick out of that. One time he got tired of his cane and so he tried to throw it in the creek. We were playing “Two Truths and a Lie” and for this three statements he said, “I play the guitar, I play the drums and I’m on crack and heroin.” When I told him the afternoon was free time and meant we could do whatever we wanted, he said, “Anything? Can we go back to the cabin and cuss?”

On a spiritual level, Justin totally rocked my world. Though Justin’s tumors were expected to give him a very short lifespan (according to the camp director, the doctors initially predicted him to live to be 12 or so) he truly was the happiest kid I’d ever encountered. If you asked him how he coped with bad days, he’d tell you he’d never had a bad day. His prayers were exceptionally profound. Once he prayed during a cabin devotional, “God, we want you to know that we love you. No matter what you do to us, we love you.”

That was as profound a statement as I’d ever heard, considering it was being uttered by someone as disabled as Justin. The only thing close to a complaint I ever heard from Justin was when he was bemoan the fact that he’d never drive. He enjoyed music more than anyone else I’ve ever known and, when I met him, he was becoming quite a competent drummer. Hearing him sing, “Open the Eyes of My Heart” left me astounded by his child-like faith in God.

I remember sitting on the porch of the dining hall, praying for him to be able to see again and to be rid of his trache. He prayed, not casually, but as if he really believed God could heal him. Justin was teaching me so much about trusting in God. I shed most of my serious medical problems as a child. Could I be as content as Justin if they had followed me into my teenage years? I knew I couldn’t. Justin was a better man than me.

Once, when we were canoeing, I got a chance to really share the gospel with him. I’d asked him what it took to get to heaven. He said something to the effect that we needed to be good. I then asked him what we could do if we weren’t good, if we messed up. Did messing up mean we had no chance of heaven? He didn’t seem to know what would need to happen to let bad people into heaven, and so I tried hard to explain to him that Jesus had died on the cross for him, being punished for all the bad things all of us have done. If we trust in Jesus as our Savior, all our bad things are forgiven and we become God’s children. I think it got through to him.

I wanted so badly to encourage Justin, because he was very discouraged about having his trache, mainly because it prevented him from being able to swim in the deep end. I told him I’d had a trache when I was a baby and he liked to feel my trache scar. At the beginning of the week, I would often say, “Justin, you’re cool. Do you know why?” He would ask, “Why am I so cool?” and I’d say, “Because you have a trache.” By the end of the week, I’d ask, “Justin, why are you so cool” and he would respond, “Because I have a trache.”

That made my soul smile. At night, Justin’s trache had to be moisturized and so he was hooked up to his breathing machine that would keep his trache from drying out during the night. I would often get up in the night, just to make sure it was functioning properly. The contraption reminded me a lot of a breathing machine I recalled using when I was a kid. Getting up in the night to check on him reminded me of what a responsibility my parents must have felt for me when I was so young and so ill. They told me they used to “sleep with one eye open” so they could check on me throughout the night. I left camp that week with a lot more respect for my parents that I had come with.

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