I have just returned home from our third annual Camp Erin, a most magical place where children and teens can laugh and cry, celebrate and commemorate.
Camp Erin is a grief camp that is held each year in the mountains of Big Bear in California. Kids from all walks of life come together with a common bond; they’ve all had someone very special in their life who has died. Some kids have lost a mother or a father, a brother or sister, a grandparent or a best friend.
They come to Camp Erin not knowing what to expect. A grief camp sounds so sad, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t turn out that way. When kids arrive at camp, they’re greeted by friendly staff and volunteers who are so glad to meet them. They are given a Camp Erin t-shirt, lanyard, and backpack filled with fun stuff. A Camp Erin teddy bear, or “Erin Bear,” and a homemade quilt are waiting for them on their bunks.
Each child brings a photo of their special person to camp with them. After they meet their camp counselors, or Big Buddies, the kids design a memory frame in honor of their loved one. They carefully place the photo in the memory frame and decorate it with words or stickers. Later that evening, in a special ceremony, each camper is given the opportunity to say something about their loved one as they place their memory frame on the Camp Erin memory board. After the memory ceremony, campers sing and dance with each other and all of the volunteers, knowing that they are in a safe place.
Another one of the activities that children do at Camp Erin is to create a memory box. Memory boxes are wooden boxes that children paint, place stickers, or use photos in memory of the person who died. They might paint the box in their person’s favorite color. Some kids write a message to their loved one. One 6-year-old girl wrote a message to her father inside of her memory box. It read: “Der DaD, i miz you sooo much.”
On Saturday night, all of the campers light a candle in memory of the person or people in their lives who have died. We call these luminaries “love lights.” Once all campers have lit their love light, we set them adrift on the lake while beautiful, comforting music is playing.
As a camp director, I might not always know the impact that camp is having on the campers while the kids are at camp. Sometimes, the kids and teens will let us know before they leave by signing our Camp Erin t-shirts. To my delight, some of the campers signed my t-shirt. Here’s what they had to say:
“Thanks for letting me come to camp. I had a lot of fun!” Camper – aged 11.
“Thank you for everything. I had so much fun being with you guys this weekend. You r a great person. See you back at Mourning Star.” Camper – aged 13.
“Thank you so much for recommending this camp for me. I had the time of my life!” Camper – aged 17.
“Hey you, thank you for everything you have done for us kids and teens. You guyz put alot of effort to do this for us and I really appreciate it.” Camper – aged 15.
While some kids let us know how they feel about camp throughout the weekend, others might not tell us until weeks or months later. After our first camp, one of the teens told me that she took her memory box home and put her father’s ashes in it. We just never know what the campers will take away from Camp Erin or from the experience of being with other grieving children and teens.
Camp Erin is special because the weekend is spent remembering the person who died and learning new coping skills to help with the healing process. For a grieving child, remembering the person who died is one of the best ways to cope with grief and to begin to heal. Kids never, ever want to forget. Camp Erin helps them to remember. Camp Erin gives grieving children and teens a chance to be with other children and teens who have experienced the death of someone close to them. Just being together, the kids can look around the room and say, “I fit in here. I’m not different here. These other people all ‘get it’.”
Our Camp Erin (Camp Erin – Palm Springs) is one of 28 Camp Erin locations in the United States. Camp Erin is the largest network of bereavement camps in the United States. Each Camp Erin is free for children and teens ages 6-17 who are grieving the loss of someone close to them. It is a weekend-long experience facilitated by grief professionals and trained volunteers from local hospice and grief counseling agencies.
If you would like to learn about Camp Erin locations near you, please visit the Moyer Foundation’s website at www.moyerfoundation.org and click on Camp Erin.
Pamela Gabbay, M.A., FT is the Camp Director for Camp Erin – Palm Springs and Program Director of the Mourning Star Center for Grieving Children, www.mourningstar.org. She is also Vice President of the Board of Directors of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, www.nationalallianceforgrievingchildren.org. Pamela appeared on the radio show Healing the Grieving Heart with Dr. Gloria and Dr. Heidi Horsley. To hear Pamela being interviewed on this show, click on the following link: www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley111308.mp
Tags: grief, hope