Pinelands retreat house expands its purpose

Brenda Hager of Audubon started going to Discovery House as a teen in 1978. "We will accept anyone who needs a quiet, reflective retreat," she says. "We won't push God down your throat."
Brenda Hager of Audubon started going to Discovery House as a teen in 1978. "We will accept anyone who needs a quiet, reflective retreat," she says. "We won't push God down your throat." (JULIA TERRUSO / Staff)
Posted: October 04, 2013

HAMMONTON, N.J. In 1978, a group of volunteers purchased an old hunting lodge in the Pinelands of South Jersey and spent the summer renovating it to serve as a retreat home.

Over the last 35 years, more than 30,000 people, mostly teen groups, have come through for weekends of spiritual guidance, education, and counseling at the Mullica Township, Atlantic County, home, known as Discovery House and operated by the faith-based organization Discovery Ministries.

In recent years, with participation in teen ministry dwindling, the organization has sought to expand its offerings to anyone looking for respite, particularly the chronically ill, victims of crime, and, now, families with children who have special needs.

"The house in itself is just a building," said Msgr. Michael Mannion, director of Discovery Ministries and head of community relations for the Catholic Diocese of Camden. "It's the people who use it and grow within its walls and experience more fully themselves and their God in the safety and security of the house that makes it what it is."

The nonprofit is funded by donations, and offers free and low-cost group retreats, as well as a weekend home to anyone with need who requests it. Camden families shattered by gun violence have spent weekends away, some leaving their neighborhoods for the first time.

It was precisely what Peter Burgos, 36, needed after the death last year of his 6-year-old nephew Dominick Burgos, killed fighting off an intruder attacking his older sister in Camden.

Burgos and youths from the teen group the Bridge spent a weekend dedicated to remembering Dominick. "Everyone supported me and my family," said Burgos, who also attended Discovery retreats as a teenager. "That house holds even greater meaning now."

Brenda Hager of Audubon, Camden County, started going to Discovery House for retreats in 1978, when it was a one-floor log cabin and she was 17. She returned later in life after being the victim of domestic violence and started gardening as therapy. The house perimeter is covered in bright arrangements and a butterfly bush she planted years ago.

"We will accept anyone who needs a quiet, reflective retreat," Hager said. "We won't push God down your throat. God is mentioned, we're a Catholic organization, but it's about more than religion here. Miracles happen here."

The large, two-story home, fresh with clean coats of paint and new carpeting, can hold a single family or upward of 30 people, depending on the need.

On Saturday, Mannion hosted the first retreat day for families with children who have special needs. The home was renovated to be handicap-accessible.

John Beirne was one of only three parents of special-needs children to attend. His 22-year-old son suffered a traumatic brain injury at age 3.

Beirne, of Haddonfield, said there was a lack of peer groups for people with special needs and, by extension, for their family members.

"They're not going to go out and play Little League or ride their bikes for the most part," said Beirne, whose son is involved in Special Olympics and will play at the national level in the June games.

Beirne encouraged the group to bring in speakers to address specific topics confronting the special-needs community.

"There's a whole world of things that could be focused on: What kind of services does the state or county serve when you get done with school? How do special needs trusts work? It could very easily be very helpful and very positive."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876

@juliaterruso

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