FELTON—At the first children’s overnight bereavement camp in Santa Cruz County last weekend, 40 children, age 6 to 17 gathered below a towering redwood canopy to post pictures of their lost loved ones side-by-side on a memory board. As the board filled with faces, many children saw for the first time that they were not alone.
“Here, kids have something in common,” said Adam Shore, chief financial officer of Hospice of Santa Cruz County. Shore, who volunteered as an adult “buddy” for the weekend, was one of about 40 Hospice volunteers who helped bring Camp Erin to Santa Cruz County.
Camp Erin is a national children’s bereavement camp program developed with the support of the Moyer Foundation, a nonprofit Seattle-based organization, which has been replicated throughout the country. Thousands of children have participated in the unusual camp experience since the first Camp Erin was held in 2002.
“The whole model is to present a time of reflection and to have time to let go and release and to know it’s OK to have fun,” said Cathy Conway, vice president of communications and philanthropy at Hospice of Santa Cruz County.
The three days were packed with activities that alternated between professional grief counseling and just plain fun.
“One of the things we heard over and over in interviews with kids and families is that kids were not talking about their loss,” said Cindi Gray, director of Grief Support at Hospice of Santa Cruz County. “They feel their loss is very different from everybody else’s.”
Children created hope flags that they draped on a redwood fence. For one activity, they caught a soccer ball imprinted with unfinished sentences such as “What I admire most ” and “I miss you most when ” In a circle of their peers, children had the opportunity to remember their loved ones and complete one of the sentences from the ball. They each received a handmade quilt donated from the Pajaro Valley Quilt Association.
In the evening, they remembered their loved ones and pushed handcrafted candle luminaries into a pool, one by one. Many of the children lingered for a long time as floating candles flickered in the dark.
“It brings a visual representation that yes, this is my loss and grief but also my strength in doing this with others,” Gray said. For many children, it is their first loss and they feel isolated.
“We let them know these are very normal responses. You can feel the weight of your pain and you can find an outlet to help you express your pain.”
Saturday evening, the deck was adorned with balloons and blinking lights for “a huge dance party” and groups of kids dressed up in wigs and masks for a photo booth staffed by volunteer photographers from the Family Album Project.
The Camp Erin weekend was made possible through donations to Hospice of Santa Cruz County and funding from the Moyer Foundation.
Hospice of Santa Cruz County provides grief support and education at offices in Scotts Valley and Watsonville as well at more than 40 schools in Santa Cruz County. Hospice hopes to hold a local Camp Erin next year.
About Camp Erin
What: Camp Erin is a free, weekend-long grief support camp designed to help children and teenagers ages 6-17, who have experienced the death of someone close to them. The camp includes traditional camp activities and grief education and emotional support with professionals and trained volunteers. The Oct. 10-12 event was the first overnight youth bereavement camp in Santa Cruz County.
Where: Mount Hermon Redwood Camp
Sponsors: Hospice of Santa Cruz County and The Moyer Foundation.
History: Camp Erin was founded by The Moyer Foundation, a 14-year-old, Seattle-based nonprofit organization that supports children’s programs nationwide. The first camp was held in 2002 in Everett, Washington. Camps are held nationwide.
To help a grieving child:
• Help them know they are not alone. Being a grieving child is a lonely experience.
• Remind them that grief is normal and feelings that accompany grief can be intense and overwhelming.
• Support their unique way of honoring and remembering the person he or she has lost.
Hospice of Santa Cruz County provides grief support services to children throughout the year through the HUG program.
Facts and figures
Facts about children and grief:
• The U.S. Census estimates that 1 in 20 children will experience the death of a parent by the time they graduate from high school.
• 1.5 million children younger than the age of 18 have lost an immediate family member.
• Research indicates these children are at a much greater risk for depression, suicide, poverty and substance abuse.
• Children often feel isolated in their grief but rarely receive formal grief counseling.
Source: The Childhood Bereavement & The Moyer Foundation’s National Bereavement Resource Guide.