‘Grief camp’ helps kids bond over loss

‘Pur­pose-driven’ re­treats use s’mores, ac­tiv­i­ties to help campers through griev­ing process

The Morning Call - - STATE/REGION - By Ja­son Nark

“Man, I came here thinking, ‘I’m go­ing to bring my light to camp,’ but I have to carry Kleenex with me at all times. I’m a very stoic, pos­i­tive in­di­vid­ual, but be­ing here this week has re­ally opened a flood­gate of emo­tions for me.” — Abra­ham “A.B.” Tor­res, 23, a vol­un­teer from Coachella, Cal­i­for­nia

A sum­mer-camp sym­phony of drib­bling bas­ket­balls, scream­ing leaps into the springfed lake, and bu­gled reveille floated into a pav­il­ion where boys sat cross-legged in a cir­cle, whis­per­ing to one an­other. Some wore white plas­tic masks, to hide the feel­ings their words con­jured up. Some just stared at their shoes. One small, skinny boy took a deep breath, then spoke.

“Well, um, when my teach­ers and friends and fam­ily were all at my dad’s fu­neral, it felt re­ally nice,” he said, push­ing his glasses up his nose. “They were all re­ally nice and helped me, and that felt good.”

“We see you,” they said in uni­son with coun­selors and vol­un­teers, ac­knowl­edg­ing his pain.

This is not your typ­i­cal sum­mer camp. For one week each year, Camp Equin­unk for boys and the neigh­bor­ing Camp Blue Ridge for girls, in Wayne County, un­dergo a slight trans­for­ma­tion, from 400 acres of fun to some­thing with a more se­ri­ous pur­pose, per­cep­ti­ble only if you lean and listen, or no­tice the tears that some­times fall.

“Man, I came here thinking, ‘I’m go­ing to bring my light to camp,’ but I have to carry Kleenex with me at all times,” said Abra­ham “A.B.” Tor­res, 23, a vol­un­teer from Coachella, Cal­i­for­nia. “I’m a very stoic, pos­i­tive in­di­vid­ual, but be­ing here this week has re­ally opened a flood­gate of emo­tions for me.”

Ex­pe­ri­ence Camps, a Con­necti­cut non­profit, runs these pro­grams for chil­dren en­ter­ing fourth through 11th grades who have lost a fam­ily mem­ber or primary care­giver. There are lo­ca­tions in five states, one as far west as Cal­i­for­nia, and this year, about 800 young­sters were ex­pected to at­tend, with 192 of them — mostly from Pennsylvan­ia, New York and New Jersey — spend­ing a re­cent Au­gust week at Equin­unk and Blue Ridge. And the pro­grams are free, funded by do­na­tions and spon­sors.

It started with just 27 boys at Camp Man­i­tou in Maine in 2009. Jon Derens owned and di­rected Man­i­tou, and when his wife, Sara, learned that a neigh­bor­ing camp was host­ing griev­ing girls, it prompted her to in­vite boys to their camp. Now she’s the CEO.

Chil­dren are re­ferred to Ex­pe­ri­ence Camps through be­reave­ment cen­ters, school coun­selors, fam­i­lies and word of mouth. Nearly 80% of the campers are re­turnees. Of­ten, siblings come to­gether. Most of them, about 60%, have lost a loved one to illness, along with vi­o­lence, sui­cide, ac­ci­dents and drug- and al­co­hol-re­lated deaths.

Large, clas­sic, bunk-style camps such as Equin­unk and Blue Ridge are com­mon in Pennsylvan­ia, tak­ing up thou­sands of ru­ral acres, ac­com­mo­dat­ing a con­stant turnover of ten­ants, along with wed­dings and cor­po­rate team-build­ing events. Be­fore the griev­ing campers ar­rived, Equin­unk and Blue Ridge hosted a Chris­tian group. When they leave, foot­ball teams will fill the bunks.

The Amer­i­can Camp As­so­ci­a­tion said “pur­pose-driven” camps have ex­isted for at least a cen­tury, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion ac­cred­its about 2,400 na­tion­wide, in­clud­ing Equin­unk and Blue Ridge. One of the largest is Camp Erin, which of­fers chil­dren’s be­reave­ment camps sim­i­lar to Ex­pe­ri­ence Camps, serv­ing thou­sands of chil­dren at fa­cil­i­ties all over the coun­try, in­clud­ing lo­ca­tions in Philadel­phia and Pittsburgh.

Camp Erin was cre­ated by for­mer Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer, who was in­spired to help af­ter he and his wife met and be­friended Erin Met­calf, a teen who later died of liver can­cer.

“We all have to deal with it, and I think everybody deals with it in their own ways,” Moyer told The In­quirer in 2007. But “see­ing chil­dren grieve, a lot of times they don’t know where to go. They don’t know how to deal with it. It’s un­for­tu­nate.”

Grief can be alien­at­ing for adults and chil­dren as the physical death fades fur­ther into the past. Clo­sure, an ill-de­fined word, is of­ten seen as a fin­ish line, and some un­fa­mil­iar with grief’s long, aching af­ter­shocks be­lieve sto­icism is the way to get there. That’s not how the camp works, and more of­ten than not, be­ing around peo­ple who haven’t “got­ten over” deaths them­selves some­how inches every­one for­ward.

“The big thing we try to get across here is that our grief is some­thing that stays with us. It’s not some­thing we’re try­ing to get over or take away from peo­ple,” said Dan Wolf­son, a psy­chol­o­gist and the clinical di­rec­tor for the boys’ side of the camp. “It’s some­thing we’re help­ing kids adapt to. We help them get a feel for what adap­ta­tion might look like.”

Among campers, vol­un­teers, and staffers, this week away from home is of­ten re­ferred to sim­ply as “grief camp,” but COO Lexie Rad­wan said there’s far more joy, s’mores and bond­ing than the term sug­gests. When the bus ar­rives, all 100 staffers and vol­un­teers are there to cheer the kids on, to dis­pel what­ever dread they’d been car­ry­ing with them.

“We re­ally, re­ally want them to know this is go­ing to be a fun week,” she said. “I would say it’s 80% camp and 20% clinical.”

Chil­dren are free to share as many de­tails as they’d like about what brought them there, or none at all.

Jah­meer, 12, from South Philly, sat in the cir­cle un­der the pav­il­ion with the other boys and their coun­selors. This was his se­cond year at the camp, and be­ing here, with kids who get what he’s go­ing through, means a lot, he said. Jah­meer lost his fa­ther in 2009. He didn’t say how he died.

“My lit­tle sis­ters, they were, like, just born, so they didn’t have a lot of time with him,” he said. “They’ll cry some­times, so I’ll tell them about good times.”

At home, around friends in Philly, Jah­meer wears a mask. They were asked to dec­o­rate the in­side of their masks with how they feel, while the out­side is what they project to the world.

“I put lit­tle black teardrops on my mask,” he said.

Over at the girls’ camp, younger chil­dren braided one an­other’s hair and made bracelets, pos­ing for ev­ery cam­era they saw be­fore lunch. Some older girls sat in a cir­cle on a bas­ket­ball court, toss­ing the ball to one an­other, and each had to name a celebrity when she caught it.

“Beyoncé,” one yelled.

“Bil­lie Eil­ish,” an­other said. One girl, how­ever, sat alone in the grass about 50 yards away, and a vol­un­teer soon walked over to join her. Each vol­un­teer has bud­dies to check in on, along with telling them to go to bed, brush their teeth, and go back to sleep.

“I’ll tell you, lit­tle girls get up way too early,” one vol­un­teer said.

At the camp’s 75-acre lake, Jordan, 15, from South Philly, stood on the dock in a life jacket. She’s in her third year at grief camp, and be­lieves that her role there has evolved as she’s got­ten older. Jordan lost her older brother when she was 10.

“I feel like this year, we’re more like lead­ers for the lit­tle kids, and we need to be role models,” she said. “Last year at the fire, lit­tle girls would come up to me cry­ing, and I’d say, ‘It’s OK,’ the same way our coun­selors did for me.”

Later in the week, amid the quiet of Equin­unk and Blue Ridge’s large, med­i­ta­tive bonfires, all the campers would be en­cour­aged to share their sto­ries one last time be­fore they went home. But there were still a few more meals to get through, in­clud­ing a rau­cous lunch in a cav­ernous mess hall, where a mix of laugh­ter and clas­sic sum­mer-camp chants rose up from the ta­ble, one bunkhouse claim­ing su­pe­ri­or­ity over an­other.

Every­one smiled over meat­balls. No one wore a mask.

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