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The camp community's response to September 11: what we did, why we did it, and what it means.

Project Heal the Children

Lifetime Camperships

Within two weeks following September 11, 2001 the American Camping Association (ACA) formally responded to the horrors of that day through Project Heal the Children, developed by the American Camping Association New York Section. ACA-accredited camps, from across the nation, donated spaces in day camps and overnight camps for all of the children who lost a parent on September 11. These are lifetime camperships, permitting the children to attend camp, free of charge, for as many years as they wish to attend. The ACA New York Section created a committee of its Board of Directors to oversee the administration of Heal the Children.

Two-hundred and fifteen camps from nineteen states responded to our request for camperships, accounting for eight-hundred lifetime camperships! Although the great majority of participating camps are in the northeast, it was gratifying to see camps throughout the country respond so generously

The Process

The only eligibility criteria for the program is that a child lost a parent on September 11 -- there is no means test associated with the program. Families fill out a simple, one-page application, indicating those things many parents want to consider in choosing a camp for their child. The family submits the application, a copy of the child's birth certificate, and a copy of the deceased parent's death certificate to the New York Section office for processing and matching the child with an appropriate camp. The Public Guidance Service at the New York Section, which typically helps inquiring families identify an appropriate camp for their child, uses the information provided by the family to determine an appropriate match. The family is given several alternatives, and the selected camps are asked to provide the family with promotional materials. Once the family selects what it believes is the best camp for their child, the registration process is similar to that of any other camper. Following the summer, regis tration for subsequent years at the camp is also handled similarly to how it is handled for all campers. As the child gets older and, perhaps, wishes to change camps (e.g., move from day camp to overnight camp), the program facilitates this process, and the camper continues to attend camp free-of-charge.

Getting the Word Out

In December 2001, Senator Charles Schumer of New York assisted the ACA in launching Project Heal the Children. In a news conference held in Manhattan, Senator Schumer stated, "Many people and many organizations have done many wonderful things in the aftermath of September 11, but this is as generous and thoughtful as anything I've seen. Summer camp is a special but rare treat and there's no better medicine for the children who lost a parent on September 11."

The New York Section contacted the companies directly affected by the tragedy, including those in the World Trade Centers, Pentagon, the New York City Police and Fire Departments, and the airlines. Many companies posted information about Heal the Children on the Web sites they had established for the victims' families. Additionally a Web site was created to provide families with information about the program.

Summer 2002

In 2002, over 125 children attended camp through Project Heal the Children. Many of these camperships were provided through the mechanism noted above: others were provided directly by the participating camps to families with whom they already had a relationship. Many of the affected children were already campers ACA-accredited camps and many of these camps offered camperships directly to the children.

Although the estimates of how many children actually lost a parent on that day changed frequently during the months that followed September 11, the current estimate is that 3000 children are left with one parent. When Project Heal the Children was conceived and created, the ACA was unsure whether the eight-hundred spaces would be sufficient to meet the anticipated demand of the eligible families. As the months went by, it became clear that most families were not ready to send their child to overnight camp. However, there was significant interest in the day camps in the suburbs of New York City. Of the 125 camperships provided in 2002, over one hundred were provided by the day camps.

The Reaction

Following the summer, the New York Section reached out to some of the families that were provided Heal the Children camperships. With no exceptions, families were grateful for the opportunity to send their children to camp and gave high praise to the experiences their children had at camp.

"My daughter had a wonderful experience at camp. The director and staff were wonderful. She had a wonderful learning experience."

"My son went to camp and loved it! He can't wait for next summer.

"I was particularly thankful that my son was among children who didn't experience the tragedy directly; he had so much counseling throughout the year that he was ready to get involved in a normal camp experience."

The Future

The American Camping Association expects Project Heal the Children to exist for a total of seventeen years, when the youngest children who lost a parent on September 11 will "age-out" of camp. Until then, it is anticipated that more families will avail themselves of the opportunity to send their children to camp. It seems that it has never been more important than now to provide kids with "a world of good." The fact remains that camp is a safe and nurturing environment.

For more information about Project Heal the Children, including a list of participating camps, please visit the Web site www.HealTheChildren.org.

Jay Jcabobs, chair, Project Heal the Children and executive director of Timber Lake Camp, Timberlake West, Tyler Hill Camp, and North Shore Day Camp

David Silverstein, American Camping Association New York Section board president and director of Summer Trails Day Camp

Brian Scholl, executive director of the American Camping Association New York Section

Photo: Cheley Colorado Camps, Estes Park, Colorado.

A Return to Normalcy

One Year Later

With all the intricate issues that surround the vastly complex world of camp, we often find ourselves struggling to maintain a consistent level of superior programming. Finding innovative ways to accomplish our mission is paramount to our success. Never was that need more challenged than in the 2002 summer camp season. For the past year, people in the Northern Virginia and metropolitan Washington, D.C., area have been on a quest to rebuild the Pentagon and return to a more normal lifestyle. While jobs, commutes, security around federal buildings, and travel plans have changed for all who live here, each family is trying simultaneously to balance the horrors of September 11 with the desire to move on. The visual reminder of what took place at the Pentagon, and its repair in one year, has become a metaphor of rebuilding for people all across the country.

The immediate reality to my camp community in Falls Church, Virginia. was shock, funerals, and grief. Current and former staff checked in on a daily basis to hear the latest news from other families. People were trading numbers and looking through old staff address books to send support or make special visits to grieving friends. Through conversations and the unique magic of camp, people began to put the pieces back together.

Proactive Support

Part of the healing process for many families in this region was to rely on something that has always been there for their children -- camp. Based on the numbers and types of inquiries that we received prior to the summer, it quickly became clear that parents were looking for reassurance that camp would continue to be a safe and supportive environment for their children.

We began the monumental task of stabilizing our community -- which includes military, civilian, and government personnel -- by answering questions and addressing concerns with immediate proactive responses. By getting the word out quickly that we were going to have camp in 2002, we definitely provided campers and staff a sense of calming relief. Included in our diverse camp community are families from Afghanistan. Being a part of camp and having an unconditional positive experience to look forward to really gave them great comfort as they continued to deal with issues of their homeland. Once these initial contacts were completed and the core of the community was informed, we began to focus on reeducating our camper families on the necessary values of the camp experience.

Parents took great comfort in our proactive approach to be especially supportive of emotional issues this summer. We spent a lot of time speaking with them about their fears and listening intently to their concerns. To help them return to a way of life that was familiar and grounded, certain camp values such as a sense of belonging, developing self-worth, being around positive role models, returning to a caring community, and being available to talk were discussed.

Addressing Concerns

To take this process one step further, we embraced the idea by addressing concerns via e-mail, at open houses, on the phone, and during recruiting visits. The educational component of dealing with September 11 was then specifically addressed at staff orientation. Consultants were brought in to work with staff to teach them what to look for and how to hand1e specific camper concerns. Because stress is an insidious thing, we made an additional point to have a special presentation on the signs and symptoms of both current and delayed child abuse. At the conclusion of orientation, we held a special parent/camper/staff information meeting so individual parents could meet with and talk to their child's counselor. This helped to calm parents who were decidedly more nervous than usual as they finalized preparations for camp.

One main topic of universal concern was camp security The lifestyle changes in our area were very extensive and thus affected the fundamental routines of almost everyone. While many returning families were already familiar with our extensive emergency and safety procedures, they wanted to hear them again. First-time parents had lots of diverse safety questions, and we outlined a number of safety procedures that specifically addressed their concerns -- such as, pre-made placards for parent pick-up, asking parents for ID's, special lock-coded doors on all buildings, visitor check-in procedures, camper tracker forms, disaster plans, emergency codes for crisis management, etc. We instituted an additional code this year for dealing with mass disaster. Unlike our other drills, this is a drill only known to staff and is not shared or practiced with campers.

A "Normal" Experience

The decision was made to put in the time for extensive parent communication before camp so we could concentrate on providing the campers with a "normal" experience. We wanted to help them with their fears and concerns while building up their self-esteem through carefully designed age-appropriate activities. The stability and reassurance they received as individuals was not just from the schedule, it was also from the staff. We instructed counselors to increase their scheduled calls home for campers who were struggling with the adjustment to normal camp procedures. Even though this is a standard procedure, we tightened the parameters on what to look for -- unexplained behavior, changes in attitude, or prolonged periods of depression.

To address the additional post September 11 issues of this summer, we made special use of our supervisors, nurse, and whole management team. Special training was required, and it started when staff were initially hired. It continued through orientation with help from both crisis management consultants and talks from police special agents who addressed some concerns specific to our area. Throughout the summer, counselors and staff were provided time and non-evasive opportunities to privately discuss their thoughts in the clinic or director's office.

Increased Visibility

All summer the entire management team was very visible to the parents. Key times such as camper drop-off, early pickup, bus transportation periods, afternoon pick-up, and extended hours were times when the administrative presence was stronger than normal. We also targeted nonregular programming time such as parent/camper evenings and the morning before each session to address concerns. At each session, before camp started, special information tables were set up, and parents were encouraged to share their thoughts and concerns with members of the administrative team.

While no camp experience is ever the same from year to year, it is critical for our campers to know that we are here for them -- unconditionally The reassurance we provide parents, particularly throughout this past year, is the outreach part of what camps do best. Helping campers and staff deal with the tragedies of September 11 is an ongoing process that will change with the developments of the world. Just as the Pentagon was rebuilt, we too are striving to improve the lives of our campers by providing an atmosphere that is familiar, stable, and safe..

Greg Cronin, C.C.D., camp director, Congressional Day Camp

America's Camp

Fun--First and Foremost

In the aftermath of September 11, Americans felt a profound desire to aid the victims. We gave blood. We wrote checks. We donated to help rescue efforts. And it still didn't feel like enough. CampGroup, which owns eight camps in the northeast and midwest, decided to help by doing what we do best--providing an outstanding summer camp experience for the children who had lost a parent on September 11. CampGroup established America's Camp, a one-week resident camp to be situated on the grounds of Camp Mah-Kee-Nac in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Attracting Campers

The first crucial task was to attract campers. To do so, we approached the Twin Towers Fund, the organization started by Rudolph Giuliani in the aftermath of September 11 to support the families of fallen police officers, firefighters, and Port Authority workers. Larry Levy, president of the TwinTowers Fund, and a former camper himself, recognized the benefits of camp for every child, and the Twin Towers Fund signed on as a sponsor. The Fund agreed to invite its children to the camp. Soon after, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union agreed to contact its victim families, and several companies affected by the tragedy contacted theirs. Senator Ted Kennedy and Boston Mayor Tom Menino contacted families in the Boston area.

On Sunday, August 18, seventy-eight children boarded two buses at Shea Stadium for a week they would never forget. Some, anxious about leaving home and family for the first time since September 11, struggled to board the bus. Others hopped on cheerfully. Camp was underway!

Action-packed

The camp was action-packed. From the Polar Bear Swim at 7:15 a.m. to archery, water skiing, and a myriad of sports activities, the campers experienced everything that camp offers. The program was almost entirely elective, with campers free to participate in a wide variety of activities. Special events highlighted every day. One afternoon, the main ball field was transformed into a carnival with rides, booths, and cotton candy. Verne Troyer, "Mini Me" of the Austin Powers movies, and Phil Fondacaro of Willow flew in to spend time with the campers. Jason and Jared Collins of the NBA's Utah Jazz and New Jersey Nets and Tiny Archibald held basketball clinics for the children. The campers took part in an all-day Patriot Games. There were trips to a local Alpine Slide and an MTV night.

America's Camp was not a grief camp. It was first and foremost about fun. The spirit and enthusiasm were remarkable and infectious. Music and dancing punctuated every meal -- with campers and staff dancing on their chairs to the tunes of songs like "Reach for the Stars" and "Build Me Up, Buttercup." Cabin groups cheered constantly, generating excitement wherever they went. During one unforgettable night in the local ballpark, America's Camp kids led the entire stadium in cheers of "Go Black Bears, Go!"

For one week, no one was labeled a "9-11 kid" or was looked at differently -- because each child shared a common tragedy. Campers were surrounded by trained, loving adults who helped them enjoy just being kids ... kids who ran and played and smiled and laughed all day long.

Grief and Healing

With so many children, all touched by the same tragedy, grief and healing were inevitably part of America's Camp. To assist in understanding and handling these issues, Camp Danbee's Jay Toporoff, a director of America's Camp, enlisted the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine. The Center sent twenty-five volunteer "buddies." Two buddies were assigned to each of the ten cabins, providing ongoing support for anyone in need. A camp building was converted into "Buddy Central," a quiet place to work on memory crafts, do quiet reading, or just talk. Downstairs, a "Volcano Room" was outfitted with foam toys and padding, so children could work out any anger they were feeling. Before bed each night, the cabin buddies directed "sharing time" -- a time when campers and cabin staff could share as much as they wished.

Reflecting on the week, Linda Kelly, who coordinated the buddies, said, "During the week, I experienced some of the richest, deepest sharing that I have ever witnessed. It's because the kids felt loved and safe. They were all there because of the same event."

Extraordinary Staff

America's Camp was staffed with an extraordinary group of staff members drawn from CampGroup's resident camps -- Danbee, Mah-Kee-Nac, Walt Whitman, Wicosuta, Winaukee, and Winadu. The eighty volunteer staff were talented, compassionate, and full of energy. Each staff member gave up a day off during the regular camp season to attend a one-day training session. As soon as the traditional eight weeks of camp had ended, the staff headed straight to America's Camp for another thirty-six hour orientation. Bob Ditter, noted camp consultant, was at America's Camp to support the staff and the campers -- "debriefing" cabin counselors each night to identify camper and staff issues. The impact of Bob's support of both children and staff was immeasurable.

At a special campfire ceremony on the first night, Jed Dorfman, assistant director at Walt Whitman and an America's Camp director, set the tone for the staff: "We all come from different camps and cultures, but starting right now we're one staff -- the America's Camp staff." Staff shirts were handed out and were worn proudly for the rest of the week. For an entire week, not a complaint was heard. Rather, there were only thanks.

In a post-camp note to the directors, one staff member expressed the sentiments of many. "Thank you for letting me be a part. I can't remember a time when I have ever been as moved as I was by those children and at the same time, felt so satisfied that I was making a difference in a child's life. You have done a wonderful thing for the families of 9-11 and for me, as well. It was amazing to see so many people from the different camps come together so quickly -- as if we all had been one staff all summer -- and to see all of these kids bond so quickly not only with the staff, but with each other."

A New Beginning

As the week drew to a close, the camp assembled for a final campfire. Many campers spoke. Several said they hoped that when they returned home, they would find the kind of support that they had experienced at camp. Each child received a small bag containing four stones and the following inscription: "These stones were chosen just for you and have special meaning. The smooth stones are like the bright and shiny parts of you, the parts that have healed and grown, and are stronger than before. The rough stone is like that corner of your heart that may always feel a little rough and painful because of what's happened to you. But because of what's happened to you, may you always be stronger, more gentle, and more tender with all the people in your life."

The buses returned to Shea Stadium the following morning, and campers and staff exchanged tearful good-byes. One mother summed up the feelings of the families who had come to pick up their children. "My son hadn't smiled in nine months," she said, "but I've been looking at the pictures on your Web site all week, and he hasn't stopped laughing and dancing!"

Reflections

In the days and weeks following, many were left to reflect on the meaning of this extraordinary week. Chris Raymond, who coordinated dozens of volunteers from the local community, summed up her experience: "None of us will ever be able to eradicate the image of the airplanes smashing into the Twin Towers, but I shall be able to move that image aside and replace it with the smiles on the kids when they had their nails done, their hair styled, climbing on the sculptures at the Rockwell Museum -- when they hip-hopped across the floor, ran around the bases during softball games, came back up the steps from water skiing, and displayed their woodworking boxes. All wonderful, beautiful smiles."

Larry Levy, president of the Twin Towers Fund, shared these words about the camp with the families supported by the fund. "Maybe it wasn't a miracle, but it was the best playground on earth. Every child asked us to have a camp next year and to have reunions during the year. Every child felt better after camp than before it. Every child deserves to have a childhood, and we will do everything we can to keep America's Camp going for them."

Irwin Grossman, director, Camp Mah-Kee-Nac

Daniel Zenkel, president and CEO, CampGroup LLC

Photo: Ransburg YMCA, Indianapolis, Indiana/Dawn Tomey.

A Day of Hope and Renewal

Bereavement counseling

Several years ago, we were shocked to discover that we had more than twenty children enrolled at day camp who had lost a parent within the past year. The children ranged in age from three to thirteen. We thought, wouldn't it be remarkable if these children could get to know others in their situation, to know that they were not alone in dealing with their grief? Wouldn't this be the ultimate building of a community where stories are shared?

At around the same time, Hospice Care Network of Long Island was seeking a site for its annual one-day bereavement program. They found a home at Coleman Country Day Camp, and Camp Hidden Heart was born. Year after year, volunteers join with grief counselors to provide a therapeutic, caring, and educational day where children participate in activities, crafts projects, and group discussions.

It was only natural, then, that we would seek to partner with our friends at Hospice Care soon after September 11 rocked our world on Long Island. While we also participated in the American Camping Association New York Section's Heal the Children project, we felt compelled to reach out even further into our community, which was filled with traders and brokers at the World Trade Centers, firefighters, and police officers.

Some of the so-called 9-11 children already were campers of ours; others came to us after we sent word into the community that we wanted to provide camperships. These campers had the opportunity to participate in bereavement groups in a pull-out program right at camp -- very similar to the one already established for children who had recently lost a parent. It was their elective activity, in a sense.

Additionally, Hospice Care conducted a one-day grief camp -- A Day of Hope and Renewal -- this past fall specifically for families who were impacted by the terror attacks. While we had hoped to have a one-week program at the conclusion of our camp season, we found that many large sponsoring groups in our area had done the outreach. Still, we felt certain that by partnering with our human resource neighbors, we could offer a very special and very meaningful support system. We were able to capitalize on the best of what camp has to offer -- creating a bond of caring, compassion, and connection.

While focusing on fun, campers also participated in specially designed games to promote healing and recovering. Topics of related discussions included responsibility and anger -- talking about "who is responsible for all this" and learning that it's okay to feel angry. "Anger," explained Eileen Moran, bereavement social worker, "doesn't get us into trouble, but our actions do!" Closing ceremonies, which included family members, focused on memories and coping skills, represented by the "North Star." The closure that this program provided for families also afforded closure for us, as well as the many camp staff who volunteered to help.

Marla Coleman, American Camping Association National President and owner/director, Coleman Country Day Camp

Camp Haze

In Loving Memory

The Scott Hazelcorn Memorial Children's Foundation was created in loving memory of Scott Hazelcorn, a twenty-nine-year-old bond broker who was killed in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Scott and his fiancee Amy Callahan had a dream to open a summer camp for children in need. After Scott's death, Amy, along with Scott's parents Janice and Chuck Hazelcorn and his brother Eric, established the Scott Hazelcorn Memorial Children's Foundation -- a nonprofit organization. This past year, the foundation ran several activities developed to help the most innocent victims of September 11 -- the children who lost a parent or loved one. The major mission of the foundation was to run a free, week-long, overnight camp experience for these children -- Camp Haze.

Through the generosity of the Landman family of Camp Kennybrook in Monticello, New York, that dream became a reality. Scott had been a camper at Kennybrook for five summers as a child, and when the Landman's heard about the foundation's efforts through an old camp friend of Scott's, they offered their camp from August 19 to 25, 2002, and for many summers to come.

The first Camp Haze experience was a huge success. The camp served forty-eight children who lost a parent or loved one. Half the staff was made up of Kennybrook counselors with years of camp experience who volunteered their final week of summer to the children of Camp Haze. The other half of the Camp Haze staff was made up of volunteers who lost a loved one on September 11, as well as trained therapists to meet any emotional needs of the children. All Camp Haze staff went through sensitivity training on how to handle children who have suffered a traumatic loss.

The week was filled with hugs, fun, laughter, and great events that let the children have an opportunity to smile again after such a traumatic year. The children and staff had an instant connection, and it was evident that these children needed to be away from their home environments and grieving parent and to feel safe to express their emotions. One of the themes of the camp week was that everyone was allowed to feel whatever they needed to feel at any time -- free Haze hugs were always available.

There were many obstacles to overcome when trying to put together a camp for children who had been through such trauma. The two major ones were finding the children and gaining the trust of the parents. Amy Callahan, executive director of the foundation, is a certified special education teacher and social worker and has worked with children for twelve years. I think our success came because our foundation is run by a September 11 family. It is impossible to know what this year has been like if you did not lose someone that day. Most of the families that let their children attend our program met and developed relationships with a member of our foundation."

The Scott Hazelcorn Memorial Children's Foundation is planning to host monthly activities throughout the year to keep the bond between the children going on a continuous basis. The Camp Haze program will host its second year at Camp Kennybrook from August 18 to 24, 2003, and hopes to expand the program to include one hundred children. For more information on this foundation, please visit the Web site at www.caphaze.org.

Amy Callahan, executive director, Scott Hazelcorn Memorial Children's Foundation

Lessons Learned

We Are Not Alone

It was an emotional moment when the two buses finally pulled into camp that sunny Sunday afternoon in late August. I remember welling up with feeling and noticing a similar reaction in many of the adults around me as we crossed the grassy field heading toward the buses. It was a feeling I did not fully understand until camp was over at the end of the week.

Many of us had been planning for this moment for nine months. We were about to be entrusted with seventy-eight children, each of whom had lost a parent the year before. Many were the sons and daughters of firefighters and others who perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11. America's Camp, as it had come to be called, was the brainchild of Jed Dorfman of Camp Walt Whitman. Jed, along with Jay Toporoff of Camp Danbee and other sponsoring members of the CampGroup, had received an endorsement for the camp from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Larry Levy, president of the Twin Towers Fund. Once sanctioned in this way, they were able to gain access to some of the families who had, understandably, been extremely wary of the press and most any organization trying to approach them. After all, what was for us a national tragedy was for them a very personal and private loss. Later, as we came to know the children at camp, it became clear that their experiences were fundamentally different from ours. September 11 was a day we felt changed America. For them it was the day their fathers or mothers died.

The Salient Factor

Our first lesson at America's Camp came early. While many of the campers came with siblings, most of the children did not know one another. As we watched over them in those first few hours, it appeared that one of the older female campers was segregating herself from the rest of her group and perhaps aligning herself with one other child separate from the rest of the group. We wondered if there was an emerging racial issue, as the two girls isolating themselves were of the same race, which was different from the rest of the group.

It was not so much of a stretch for us to wonder about this. After all, the two girls did come from a culture and background that probably made them feel initially different from the others, and this difference probably was the basis for their "finding" one another. Before our wonder could go much further, however, the "group magic" happened. The fact that these two girls had the same compelling reason to be at camp as all the other campers made any differences, real as they might be, ultimately unimportant. It quickly became clear to us that the one thing that these children had in common -- the recent loss of a parent -- was so compelling, so powerful for them and us, that any other difference, whether it was race, hometown, even gender, was trivial by comparison. They all belonged to the same "club," as it were, finally together in one place here at the end of the summer.

We were witnessing what Judith Harris, in her book titled The Nurture Assumption, described as the salient factor, a well-known concept in social psychology. In the case of our campers, the most powerful salient factor was that they had all suffered a sudden loss of a parent. This was the one common condition that gave the group its strongest identity. As Harris points out, "when a particular social category (in this case, the loss of a parent) is salient and you categorize yourself as a member of it -- that is when the group will have the most influence on you."

This notion of salience is a bit tricky. What makes a group condition salient, which is to say prominent or conspicuous, is the presence of a contrasting factor within the group or in another group. For example, the social category "lost a parent" is not salient in a group of children who all have the recent death of a parent in common. As soon as some children who have not lost a parent are present, everyone who has lost a parent recognizes how they are "different." It suddenly stands out. The campers themselves told us how, when they were part of other camp programs that summer where they were the only child who had lost a parent, they resented being, as they put it, the "9-11 kids." As individuals in these mainstream programs, they always felt "different" or self-conscious or "looked at."

One child told us that she came to resent it when adults or other children would ask, "How are you doing?" -- a question which immediately drew attention to the fact that she was different. (It is interesting to see how what is intended as a question of concern from caring adults can so easily be experienced as uncomfortable or unwanted by the children to whom that care is directed!) Even though each child had suffered a tremendous and shocking loss, they, like most children, did not want to be different or singled out from other children.

The relief for most of the campers at America's Camp was that all the other campers were just like they were. It was not only "no big deal" to talk about your dad, the firefighter, from a certain engine company, but a relief. Finally the story of one camper could be echoed with the story of not only all the other campers in his or her bunk, but, indeed, the entire camp.

Committed Staff

The loss the children had suffered was clearly felt by the staff. Though the counselors had by and large not suffered what the children had suffered (a few counselors and many of the volunteer adult grief workers had themselves lost a parent, spouse, or child), they had volunteered to be at Americas Camp because of the sympathy they had with the children's loss. Coming from five different camps, two all male, two all female, and one coed, each with very distinct and different cultures and styles, the staff blended and worked together at an amazingly high level of cooperation and collaboration.

This was no small feat. The counselors from the five camps were, after all, the cream of the crop -- the strongest of the staff from their respective camps who were used to taking initiative, taking charge, getting things done, going the extra mile and doing it with flourish, vigor, and spirit. In other words, we had 120 leaders. My concern was that these wonderful, committed, highly motivated, hard-working young adults would fall all over each other. How would they, strong characters that they were, work out on such short notice, having literally been thrown together in less than thirty-six hours -- who would do what and who would follow whose lead?

Once again the group magic happened. The desire to serve these children, with their compelling history, was so complete that it overcame any clash of ego or conflict of style. As one counselor put it, "We're here for the kids. It doesn't matter whose idea is most impressive or who the most popular counselor is. What matters is that we give these kids the best week of their lives."

Power struggles or ego trips were simply out of the question for this staff Such was the power of their commitment, mirroring the condition of the children. They were truly able to put the needs of these children ahead of their own. Indeed, during a debriefing session I held for staff at the end of the week, one counselor quipped that "inter-camp games will be forever ruined for me" because, as he said, he could not imagine competing in any serious way with people he had become so close to and worked with so well.

The Buddy System

One of the most important aspects of America's Camp was the presence of two different groups of adults and their respective outlook and mission regarding the children. Over twenty volunteers and leaders from the Center for Grieving Children (CGC) in Portland, Maine, joined the counselor staff. The Center was established fifteen years ago by a man named Bill Hemmens, whose adult sister died of terminal cancer leaving him to find help with his own grief and that of his niece. The CGC volunteers, or "buddies" as they were called at camp, partnered with the counselor staff to be available for campers who might have grief issues regarding the loss of their parent. (We had one child who lost her mother three months after her father died on September 11.)

There were many differences between the buddies, and the cabin and program counselors chosen from CampGroup camps. First, as a group, the buddies were older. Many were parents and a number of them had experienced a death of their own child, spouse, or parent. As a group, the buddies were consequently more identified with the campers and less identified with the general staff. In addition, each buddy volunteer had received over twenty hours of training specifically around grief work and came from an organization whose mission "... is to provide support to children and teens who are grieving the death or coping with the life-threatening illness of an important person in their lives." This in turn shaped what was perhaps the greatest difference between these two staff groups, which was their vision of what camp would actually be about.

Counselors, especially high performers the likes of which we had at America's Camp, saw their job as "keeping the kids happy" -- play hard, laugh often, and do as much as possible in the week we have together. In some ways, the staff was helping the children "keep their minds off their pain." They had come to give what they were the experts at giving children -- a great time. The orientation of the "buddies" was, of course, just the opposite. Their vision was to provide a forum for and allow the campers, in their own time and in their own way, to talk about and remember their beloved parent.

Deciding which direction to go was a tension we felt all week at camp. I like to think it was a healthy tension -- an issue that needed debate and discussion without any one "right" resolution. Prior input from the parents did not offer us any great guidance. Our parents had explicitly said they did not want a grief camp," yet no one truly asked in detail just what having a "grief camp" meant to them. Did this mean they didn't, want their children to feel sorry for themselves or to dwell on the death of their other parent and become morose? This, of course, would be in keeping with a healthy urge to go on with life. Yet, our camper parents also said they wanted their children to be with other children who had had the same experience as they so that, in the words of one mom, "he would know he's not the only one." Parents wanted their children to come home with the names and addresses of other kids they could maintain contact with and see throughout the school year -- kids who were "just like them."

Facing Our Feelings

As a therapist, I think about the balance between giving time for feelings and "moving on" with life quite a lot. As Americans, we are busy people. One aspect of our being so busy is how much of a distraction it affords us from feeling.

Whether it is pain, uncertainty, sorrow, sadness, or anguish, if we keep ourselves busy enough, we won't feel it. As Americans, we have many distractions to help us avoid feelings. A recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, stated that the true appeal of sports is the tremendous distraction it offers to the difficulties of life.

Many people have spoken about September 11 as a kind of "wake-up call," like cold water on the face -- something no amount of diversion could help us avoid. One lesson we can take from the campers of America's Camp is that, given the opening and the support, we as people can heal ourselves through play, games, building, talking, sharing, and having our feelings.

As I said to the staff during our hurried orientation, we can't "make" children feel anything they don't already feel. We simply either give them the space and the structure to have their feelings in constructive ways, or we help them avoid those feelings by distraction and over programming. As one camper said, "I like thinking of my dad. He was a hero. He saved a lot of people. Why would I not want to talk about that?"

Indeed, it was, ironically enough, the children themselves who led the way. On the very first day many of our campers -- boys and girls alike -- were wearing T-shirts and sweat shirts showing their father's engine company and the names of all the fallen firefighters from that company. Or, they were wearing bracelets with their parent's name, or a locket or necklace with their parent's picture. What clearer signal could they have given us that there was a very important person in their lives that they were more than ready to tell us about?

A Celebration of Joy and Remembrance

What did we finally accomplish? I suppose that depends on whom you ask. I think America's Camp did a remarkable job of giving the children both one fun-filled, exciting, happy week; and a safe, supportive, responsive community in which to celebrate and remember their parent. That the memory often comes with sadness, pain, or anger is the nature of life. The counselors helped those children reconnect with their sense of wonder, their sense of adventure, and their sense of humor. The program staff did a monumental job of doing in one week what usually happens in three or four. And the buddies helped the children of America's Camp have their memories and their feelings -- helping them see the continued connection they would always have with their "lost" parent.

At the end of the week, after the children had left, I conducted a debriefing session with the staff, the likes of which, in terms of honesty and depth of sharing, I am sure many of those counselors had never experienced before. Danny Metzger, camp director, spoke for all when he said. "I came here determined to give these kids one of the best weeks of their lives. Little did I know that they would give me one of the best weeks of my life."

Another staff member felt perplexed and sad about the fact that one of the campers seemed angry with her all the time, for no explicable reason. When I explained that "children will make us into whomever they need us to be in order to do the work they came here to do," it clicked for her. She immediately realized that this female camper was probably very angry that her father had "left her" and that the only person close enough to her that she could express her anger to was her mother. This week this female adult staff member was her "mother."

Another staff member stood up and said, "I've always enjoyed being a counselor-- and I think I do a good job of it. This week was different for me. I got the feeling that this week I wasn't just a counselor; it was like I was a parent to these kids." Indeed, we were all parents to these children that week.

There were many other lessons at America's Camp, perhaps too many to name here. One that stays with me is how the loss each one of those children has experienced cannot help but resonate with the loss each of us eventually feels as a human being. There is way out of this dilemma, except never to become attached to anyone. For those of us who dare to love, the loss is a matter of time. Yet, what is the choice? For America's Camp it was to celebrate the love and importance of that special person, knowing we are not alone in this -- our most basic humanity. This is certainly the root of the emotion I felt walking across the field to greet our campers that first day of America's Camp last August. I cannot imagine a better gift to give ... and receive.

Bob Dieter, licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy and on site mental health consultant to America's Camp, August 2002. The Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine, can be contacted at 207-775-5216 or at www.cgcmaine.org.

References

Harris, Judith Rich. (1998). The Nurture Assumption. New York: The Free Press (Simon and Schuster, Inc.).

The Center for Grieving Children (CGC). 1999. Supporting Children and Teens Through Grief and Loss: A Guide for Parents. Portland, Maine.

"The True Appeal of Sports," The New York Times Sunday Magazine, September 29, 2002.
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Publication:Camping Magazine
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Date:Jan 1, 2003
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