This Summer Camp Helps Kids Deal with Grief

Experience Camps is helping children heal after loss by connecting them with the great outdoors. 

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- Posted on Apr 27, 2017

This Summer Camp Helps Kids Deal with Grief

A different kind of summer camp is hoping to help kids learn to grieve. 

Sara Deren and her husband, John, run Experience Camps, a bereavement camp dedicated to helping boys and girls deal with tragic loss in a communal setting at Camp Manitou in Maine.

The couple had been running a regular summer camp for boys for years before being contacted by Camp Tapawingo, a girls’ camp, also in Maine, that had been running a free bereavement program. The girls’ camp wanted to know if Deren and her husband would be interested in offering a similar free week-long grief program for boys.

For Deren, it seemed like the answer to a question she had been asking for a while.

“We were looking for a way to expand what we were doing,” Deren tells Guideposts.org.

Deren worked with the head clinician at the girl’s camp to get a plan in place and hire a clinical director for their own grief program called Experience Camps. They came in to train camp staffers, volunteers and counselors – many of whom were Camp Manitou alumni – on how to speak the language of grief and relate to the children they’d be helping.

In 2009, the program hosted 27 boys. Just a few years later and Experience Camps are now serving 500 boys and girls in states all across the U.S – Maine, New York, California and soon, Georgia. The program is open to anyone 9 to 16 years old who has experienced a devastating loss.

The combination of community, physical activity and healing work seamlessly at Camp Manitou, mostly because the emphasis isn’t on clinical therapy – something Deren doesn’t think the camp is able to offer in just one week -- but on sharing experiences and having fun.

Everything at camp is tailored to provide encouragement, support and empowerment to the children who attend. It begins when the kids get on the bus.. Some fly in from states away, others are more local but they all meet at specific pick up spots to begin their journey to camp together. 

“We want the kids to begin their bonding when they get on the bus and start to meet other kids,” Deren says of why the ride is so important. “Another part of it just emotionally and psychologically is that we want the kids to able to leave their parents and not the other way around. They’ve already had experiences where they had something or someone taken away from them that was out of their control. So this is one little, very subtle way that’s giving them some control in saying, ‘Ok you’re going to get on the bus and drive away. Your parent is not going to bring you to camp and then leave.’ So even just that subtle shift it kind of helps them feel like that have some ownership over the experience that they have at camp.”

They’re assigned bunks, just like at a regular summer camp, they take their meals in the dining hall and they participate in physical activities. Hiking, swimming, canoeing, rock climbing, arts and crafts – everything and anything is available as electives. They spend most of the day outside, participating in team building exercises, tournaments and friendly sports matches until it’s time for a few special electives you wouldn’t see on a normal camp itinerary.

The kids participate in something called “sharing circles” with their assigned counselors, clinicians and fellow bunk mates. The time is dedicated to telling and listening to each other’s stories. Some kids share, others just sit quietly, but Deren says all the children get something from hearing that they’re not alone in their grief.

“What happens, particularly in that first circle, is that for many of them it’s the first time they shared their story so that helps them start to adapt to the loss, just by repeating the story. There’s something healing about that,” Deren explains. “The other part of it is they’re hearing other kids’ stories and thinking ‘There are other people like me. There are other people who get what I’ve gone through.’”

Besides sharing circles, camp clinicians and counselors offer coping methods for stress and anxiety – two things children dealing with traumatic loss often experience. Breathing exercises and body drawing help kids identify where they’re holding stress and how they’re feeling, something that can be difficult for younger campers suffering with loss.

Older campers are encouraged to mentor the younger generation and Deren says that while her staff of volunteers and professionals do all they can to help the kids, it’s the bonds the children form with each other that make the biggest difference.

“They’re able to take something terrible that’s happened to them that they’ve dealt with for a long time and transfer it in a positive way to help someone else,” Deren says. “It becomes part of their healing and the younger campers are like, ‘Wow this big kid is helping me. That feels good.’ And it also inspires them to want to be that kid when they get older so all of a sudden they feel hope; they feel like there’s something to look forward to in their journey, that there’s something ahead. ‘If this kid can be okay, I probably can be too.’”

Deren hopes the camps can help de-stigmatize grief, opening up conversations between adults and children on loss and how to heal from it.

“The way that people grieve can be different and there isn’t just one way to do it,” Deren says. “I think if the adults start having those conversations more openly it trickles down to the way kids feel about it. It lets them know that it’s normal. So for Experience Camps, I want us to become part of that conversation and to be able to amplify that conversation so that kids can feel less isolated through their experiences with grief.”

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