SCOTTS VALLEY—Hospice of Santa Cruz County has received a $10,300 grant to expand its second children’s bereavement camp, the only camp of its kind on the Central Coast to combine zip-lining, archery, memorial luminary floats and professional grief counseling.
“It is designed to help children process in the natural way they do,” said Cathy Conway, hospice spokeswoman.
With funding from the Moyer Foundation and New York Life, up to 50 children will join 30 staff and volunteers for Camp Erin, a weekend event at Mount Hermon Redwood Camp Oct. 9-11. Camp Erin is open to any child, age 6-17, who has lost someone special to them. Last year, 38 children from throughout the region participated.
The Camp Erin program was created by the Moyer Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by former Major League Baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen, in 2002.
It honors the Moyers’ family friend Erin Metcalf who died of cancer at age 17. Since then, 46 free camps have been established serving more than 2,800 children annually. The Santa Cruz County Camp Erin was the first one created outside of a Major League Baseball city.
“Children grieve differently than adults,” Conway said, noting the combination of traditional camp activities and memorial projects. “They can be in it one moment and out of it the next and then they’ll come back to it. They take it in chunks.”
An estimated 1 in 20 children age 15 and younger, more than 1.5 million in the U.S., live in a single-family household because of the death of a parent, according to U.S. census figures.
The actual number of children affected by grief, however, is much higher when considering losses of other parental figures, extended family members and friends. These children are at a much greater risk for depression, suicide, poverty and substance abuse, according to Hospice.
Participants who meet each other prior to the October camp start the weekend by posting photographs of their loved ones on a memory board. They begin to tell their story.
“When you do that with 40-50 kids, the child feels, ‘I am not alone,’” said Cindi Gray director of the Hospice grief support program. “It’s this stunning ‘a-ha’ moment that everyone else has gone through something like this as well.”
Last year Hospice staff and trained volunteers provided 1,090 sessions of grief support services to children and teens including on-campus at more than 40 local schools.
Camp Erin attendees could come from any agency serving children. With several recent tragedies in the community that have taken young lives, Hospice has also been focusing on the needs of children and families experiencing the sudden loss of children.
“At Camp Erin, we have children that have had a hospice experience and have seen a loved one travel through their illness and they’re grieving that, but we’re also seeing children affected by sudden death, a suicide, a homicide or an accident,” Gray said.
Parker Katona, 12, who attended the camp last year after losing two grandparents and a favorite teacher in just a year, said he was surprised that the experience of grief was so similar for everyone. It didn’t matter who people lost or how old they were.
“We all felt the same,” he said. Not that Parker really wanted to attend Camp Erin. “Right after my grandfather died, according to my mom, I was being crazy-pants and arguing and depressed.”
As the weekend drew closer, his mother Mary wasn’t sure he really needed to go either. It wasn’t until later, when she picked him up after camp, that she saw it was one of the best things she could’ve done for him. Stress levels dropped and Parker seemed happier.
Nearly a year later, the grief hasn’t disappeared. Parker said he’s still sad sometimes about losing the people he loves. In those times, he sits and looks at photos and remembers them.
“Normally that helps me,” he said. “That’s what I learned to do at the camp.”
Camp Erin applications and donor opportunities are available at http://www.hospicesantacruz.org/camp-erin, or call 831-430-3000.
This article was published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.