Gap Year Student Experience — Maddie McCaffrey — Arrowhead Camp (PA)

Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Maddie McCaffrey, who is currently enrolled in The Launch Initiative (TLI) gap year at Arrowhead Camp, a long-time frontline ministry partner of Eleven:6.  She is also enrolled for a full load of college courses integrated throughout TLI via Anchor Christian University. We talk about Maddie’s personal journey, how she connected with the camp, her experiences so far, and what she’s learning.

Watch the video, listen to the audio, and/or read the (edited for flow) transcript below.

About Maddie – Origin Story

Ben – We’re here with Maddie McCaffrey. She’s a student in The Launch Initiative (TLI) which is a ministry of Arrowhead Bible Camp in Brackney, PA, a program that we’ve worked with for a while here at Eleven:6. So Maddie, thanks for taking some time to hang out with us and connect and share. Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you come from, all that fun stuff.

Maddie – Yeah, so my name is Maddie. I’m from Baltimore County, Maryland. Very country side of it all. I just I love working with people with disabilities, so being placed here [at Arrowhead Bible Camp] is just honestly a blessing.

Ben – You are in your freshman year of college. What did life look like prior to that? And how did you connect with Arrowhead in that process and then end up in The Launch Initiative (TLI)

Maddie – Before all of this, I was in high school. I was really involved in FFA, which used to be known as Future Farmers of America. I was the president there for my senior year of high school. And then I know an alumnus that used to work [at Arrowhead Camp] over the Summer. And she reached out to me because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. 

I wasn’t really ready to go to college yet.  I didn’t want to accumulate student debt and do all of that stuff. She gave me the idea of looking at this gap year program at Arrowhead. And I fell in love with it the first time I visited.  Then I applied and I worked here for the Summer. And now I’m here doing the gap year program. 

Connecting With Arrowhead Bible Camp (PA)

Ben – So you say you fell in love. I’m curious, what did that look like? What was it? Was there an experience? What was it that connected for you while you were there?

Maddie – Just being around a community that works so hard and loves working with people with disabilities, and showing them that they’re loved and that they’re worth it and they’re worth the time that we’re putting into being with them, and just showing them that.  And the community of just being around people who love the same thing as me is just really important for me. 

Ben – What did your summer experience look like? What were you doing? What was the dynamic? 

Maddie – My summer experience was kind of a shock. I wasn’t expecting it to be as much as it was, but the first week and a half was training, learning how to provide for my campers, what to do for meals. And then after that, I was given my first five-to-one, which was five campers and then me and… I just learned the ropes of it. 

The first time you do anything for a new job is a little scary, and you’re trying to learn how to just function, and what works best, and what doesn’t work best, and how to adapt with different campers. So it was a lot of adapting and learning from other people who’ve also been doing this for a little bit longer than I have. But just waking up early, showing the energy, being there for the campers, just being excited about being here and showing them the love of Jesus, that we’re excited that they’re here and we can pour into them. 

Ben – There are a lot of young people – high school, college students in the summer – that think, “I’m going to go work at camp.” And Arrowhead and the Shepherd’s Camp is a whole different ball game as far as the dynamic and the camper. So for those that aren’t familiar, you say disabilities – Shepherd’s Camp – talk a little bit about what that means and what that looks like for you.

Maddie – Arrowhead is a camp that specializes in serving individuals with developmental disabilities. And so a lot of that looks like just learning the camper’s medical history, what you have to do, getting them to take their meds at specific times, which the nurse helps a lot with, and understanding different aspects of different disabilities that exist, then having that patience. 

Because some of them respond slower or there are mobility needs or mobility aids. So just having that patience to learn how to work alongside the camper and just be a friend with them, and learning what works best for them so you can make the camp experience the best that it can be. 

Why Disability Ministry?

Ben – I’m really curious about your experience and some of the dynamics that are unique to you in the camp. So I’ve got two questions. First, go back to the point in time where you said, “you know what, I really have a heart for, and I want to get involved in disability ministry.” 

Maddie – I grew up being a pastor’s kid. And at a point when my dad moved to a new church, when we moved to Baltimore County, he also started working for a different organization that works with people with disabilities.  And he got really into just working with people with disabilities, bringing them into the church, making sure that the church was including them into the services and not just excluding them into a different class or pushing them aside during the service. Because they can be seen as a distraction or whatever. And people aren’t adapted to accepting.  

So when I saw that side of church and how people with disabilities are one of the number one least people reached out to in Christianity – and just showing them the love of Jesus – it just pulled at my heart that it’s an important thing to do to reach out and show them the love of Jesus, that they are accepted, that they’re fearfully and wonderfully made. 

Summer Counselor Experience

Ben – That’s awesome. Let’s talk a little bit about the Summer. Were there any stories, circumstances or experiences that stuck out for you as highlights or marking moments? 

Maddie – That’s a good question. I think specifically for me, I was diagnosed with autism when I was about 13 or 14. And just being able to understand some of my campers on that aspect a little better [was significant]. I met a girl maybe the first week I was here. I’m pretty sure her name’s Raina. I’m super bad with names. And we just really connected, and I was able to be somebody that she could come to and that she felt comfortable talking to about that stuff.

And then the same thing happened with a different camper that I had… her name’s Chrissy. And that was maybe a week ago. It was in the Fall session. And just being able to connect with my campers in that way and have that level of understanding really stuck out to me being like, wow, I can really help and have them just feel comfortable in that aspect of life. Because it’s a very isolating aspect of their lives where they feel like they’re alone. Having them know that they’re not alone and that they have somebody that they can come to really stuck out for me. 

The Launch Initiative (TLI) Gap Year Program

Ben – Awesome. Okay, so in high school your heart connected with disability ministry, then you got connected to Arrowhead via a friend.  You did Summer [as a counselor at Arrowhead], then made the decision to do The Launch Initiative (TLI). In the transition from Summer to TLI – you’re halfway through the first semester – what has been the same and what has been different between Summer and TLI in your experience? 

Maddie – So with the Summer, it was constantly go, go, go. There was this activity, there was that activity. We had the weekend and then it was another week that we went into it. Something that’s really different, when I translate, when I switched into this Fall session and doing my college classes, is it’s a much slower pace. I have more time to focus on my classwork, but I also have time where I can focus on my campers that I’m working with that week. So transitioning from a fast paced environment to a slower paced environment is a little bit of a shock, but it’s nice to be able to step back, and it gives me time to focus on my school, but then it also gives me time to connect with my campers on a different level.

Ben – Is there anything in your experience with TLI so far that has surprised you or was different than what you expected?

Maddie – I mean, I’ve worked at different camps, kind of like this, not to the extent of what it was [last Summer] and just seeing how much goes into it and the business aspect of camp, and the team aspect [at Arrowhead], and how important team dynamics are, which was just really shocking for me. Because I was kind of like, oh, it’s just going to be me and then I’m going to do my camper thing and then it’s just going to be like, whatever. But actually having meetings, sitting down with everybody, being able to dive into books, and different classes like team building and stuff like that… I think it really shocked me. But I like it. It’s good! 

Ben – Yeah, because a lot of a lot of students in high school, college, etc…, they get involved with Summer camp and Summer camp is hair on fire, right? No matter where you are, it’s just kind of nuts. And then you get into a program during the “offseason” where there are different rhythms and the experience changes.  There’s a little bit of a culture shock.  So getting exposure [to that reality], is pretty cool from an experience and learning perspective. 

So talk about the approach to college courses in a program like this. The Launch Initiative (TLI) at Arrowhead is a bit different than you would get obviously on campus and some other places. Tell me a little bit about what your experience has been with that so far from a pace standpoint, from a learning dynamic standpoint. Where do you feel you’re growing?

Maddie – Yeah, so with the pace, I have a class in the morning and then one in the afternoon. And it’s really nice because when going through – we’re going through One Hour One Book right now – and we’re able to go into depth about it, but then we can pause it and we can have a conversation about it.  And I think that’s really nice because compared to my friends I’ve been talking to that are going to bigger colleges, they have the class and they can’t stop when they have a question and they can’t debrief about the question that they have and go into more detail so they can apply that into their lives. So I think that’s a really cool thing of being able to go at the pace that I need to go and understand it.  Having that one-on-one time to understand what we are learning in that class, how I can apply it to my life, why it’s important in the first place, I think is really cool. 

Compare and Contrast to Other School Experiences

Ben – Having been in different learning environments myself, that’s a very good point. How it’s set up and what room you have to process before you move on to other things… and especially when you have a question about the content, but also need to process how the content relates to what you’re doing tomorrow. That’s a pretty big, dynamic difference. 

In high school, did you do online classes? Were you on a regular campus? You know, what was your high school experience like? And how does that compare to what you’re experiencing at TLI? 

Maddie – So my high school experience was mostly, I mean, other than COVID, it was in-person on campus and it was very busy. I was in school and then right after school, I’d go to FFA and then after FFA, I would have work and I’d be going to like different places all at once. And so then moving here and doing my work and my school and everything and my social life being here… It’s definitely a huge change of pace and something that I’ve definitely been adapting to because I’m not used to being in one set place for almost everything that I do with my life now. So that’s been a huge change from high school to this year. 

Ben – Given that, what has been the biggest challenge so far for you in that transition, the dynamic at TLI, andliving this season of your life?

Maddie – The biggest thing is probably not having to go everywhere. I’m so used to go, go, go. Being able to step back and look at life in a different slow pace kind of way, I think is really important, because I’ve been able to focus more on my time with Jesus and I’ve been able to make sure that that’s actually time that I’m having every day, and being able to focus on my schoolwork, not having to just drive everywhere and feel like a ticking time clock is going down until I go to bed. Then I wake up and then I started the next day. So it’s nice to be able to step back and take life at a slower pace, but also to focus on really important things. 

Big Takeaways, So Far

Ben – And again you’re only really eight or nine weeks into this at this point but is there anything that you’ve learned about yourself in the process at this point that either surprised you or was helpful?

Maddie – Something that really surprised me that I’ve learned about myself since being here is how much I relied on distracting myself with constantly having to do things. It was such a distraction and I would always use it to distract myself like, oh, I can’t read my Bible. I have to go do this. And just being able to have that time and be like, girl, you need to take a step back. Not everything has to be going at a hundred miles an hour.  That has been a huge thing I’ve learned about myself so far. 

Ben – That’s huge because I think all of us, we get into those habits and patterns. I do it… get into those habits and patterns of, okay, this has to be done, this has to be done, this has to be done. And that rhythm of stop, breathe, think, process, spend time with the Lord, ask Him some questions instead of just firing some stuff at him. That’s a pretty big deal from a life standpoint. 

All right, so talk to me a little bit about… because I talk to Ben (Myers) all the time, I talk to Joel a good bit. For those that may be listening, Ben (Myers) is the director (at Arrowhead Camp) and Joel heads up TLI, among other things. Talk to me about the team dynamic and the relationships and how that works from your perspective at TLI. 

Maddie – So team dynamics… I’ve had jobs before where you’ve had to rely on a team, but I think it’s a different thing when you’re living life together at the same time where you’re working. So I know a big thing that we’ve been working on right now, is communication between all of us, which is really important. I never really realized how important it was to have a functioning team. And how important it is to be okay with talking to somebody when you think something’s going wrong and like having that conversation.  I think it is so important and something that we’ve all been learning. I think that just learning how to work in a team, not just work, but live life as a team together is really cool. That’s something I’ve definitely been working on recently because I’m not as used to it. But I think it’s such a vital thing to learn now that I see it and looking at my future, this is such an important thing to know and understand. 

Ben – Yeah! There are ways on a normal college campus to gain that sort of insight, but the level of immersion that you have and the way that works… you’re talking about engaging existing professionals that have been in it for a long time, people at different stages. Having that opportunity is powerful. 

Why TLI? Advice for High School Graduates

So you were introduced to Arrowhead by a friend, who is an alumnus.  And let’s say the 17-year-old version of you were to come to you and say, hey, let’s grab coffee. Help me understand what this TLI thing is and why I might want to think about that. How would you explain that? 

Maddie – I would say, if I was talking to my 17 year old self, I was so focused on knowing exactly what I needed to do and being focused on going to college because I think it’s a very pushed thing to go directly into college and being on a college campus. As soon as you graduate high school – and even talking to my friends that are in college now they’re just not ready. And I’ve talked to friends that done other gap programs where just being able to take that step back and just focus on not simply getting a degree, but also having that time to, you know, you’re still going to college, you’re still getting these credits, but you’re also able to live life and learn about life and learn about yourself and learn about all these other experiences outside of college.  It is so important.

And still having that time of growth of and experiences you would get moving from home and going to college campus, you still are living that independent life, learning how to be independent and living by yourself and growing in that aspect, but you also have that time to step back and not go right back into like a college campus. I think it is so important, especially for me, because I had no idea what I wanted to do.

And so when I found this opportunity and now that I’m in this opportunity, I’m so thankful that I can look back and be like, wow, like this is giving me the time to understand what I like and what I honestly want to do and how I can do that. It’s giving me time to make a game plan and look at my future. And learning about finances and all that stuff. I’m learning about like all this life stuff before I’m jumping right into it without having any idea what I’m supposed to be doing. 

Ben – Which is exactly the defined purpose of a gap year, which is great. Yeah. And a Christian gap year in particular, because there’s the practical, it feels like finance and planning and team dynamics and all that stuff. And then there’s the, okay, what does Jesus have to say about this? What’s the Lord’s call in my life? And especially if you don’t quite know what you’re headed into yet, and you’re still sorting that stuff out, the opportunity to download that is significant. In a place where people are actually focused on, not just getting you through a program, but saying, okay, who’s Maddie, where’s Maddie headed? How do we navigate that process? 

Future Plans?

That said, this is probably a question for next May, as opposed to October, which is where we are right now.  But at this point, do you have an idea yet what you’d like to do next or what you think maybe God’s going to put in your path next? 

Maddie – Yeah, so I’ve been looking a lot into media, well, media marketing and social media and marketing kind of stuff. I think it’s always been a super fascinating thing. My dad’s always done it and I’ve always been super interested in the whole mental idea behind it and all of that stuff.  But I also have a heart for agriculture and working with people in agriculture and with disabilities, like on hypo-therapy farms and stuff like that. And I’m using courses and the physical therapy kind of side with that. So I’m kind of in between two places right now, but just being able to look back and focus and really connect with people in those fields and understand what those fields are actually like before I just jump into it, I think is really important for me. 

Ben – So do you think college is next as it relates to that? Are you thinking of alternative pathways? 

Maddie – I’ve definitely been looking into different colleges, possibly community college, getting those other basic things down. But it’s definitely an option right now for college. Yeah. 

Ben – Well, that’s all the questions I had for today. Very fun conversation for me, because again, one of the things I love about what I do is I get to meet awesome students and you have all these different paths and journeys that God put into young people. And hearing your heart, hearing your thought process and seeing how that’s intersecting with the program is an encouragement to me. I appreciate the opportunity to have the conversation, but also the opportunity to be part of your journey. It’s a big deal to me anyway. So thank you. 

Maddie – Yeah, of course. It was good talking to you. Yeah, likewise. 

Ben – So hopefully, maybe we should follow this up again in May and have another conversation and see where you went. Is that good? 

Maddie – Definitely. Awesome. 

Ben – Thanks, Maddie. Have a great week.