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At 'grief camp,' children bond over losses, lots of s'mores

At a different kind of summer camp, a young boy talks about his father's funeral, and other youths, counselors and volunteers say in unison "We see you," acknowledging his pain

Camp counselor Matt Liebhaber, center bottom, carries Jr., 12, on his shoulders at lunchtime during the weeklong Experience Camp at Camps Equinunk and Blue Ridge in Equinunk, Pa., on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. The free program is for children who have lost a parent, sibling or caregiver and involves traditional summer camp experiences as well as clinical grief activities. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)
Camp counselor Matt Liebhaber, center bottom, carries Jr., 12, on his shoulders at lunchtime during the weeklong Experience Camp at Camps Equinunk and Blue Ridge in Equinunk, Pa., on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. The free program is for children who have lost a parent, sibling or caregiver and involves traditional summer camp experiences as well as clinical grief activities. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)Read moreTIM TAI / AP

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A summer-camp symphony of dribbling basketballs, screaming leaps into the spring-fed lake, and bugled reveille floated into a pavilion where boys sat cross-legged in a circle, whispering to one another. Some wore white plastic masks, to hide the feelings their words conjured up. Some just stared at their shoes. One small, skinny boy took a deep breath, then spoke.

"Well, um, when my teachers and friends and family were all at my dad's funeral, it felt really nice," he said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "They were all really nice and helped me, and that felt good."

"We see you," they said in unison with counselors and volunteers, acknowledging his pain.

This is not your typical summer camp. For one week each year, Camp Equinunk for boys and the neighboring Camp Blue Ridge for girls, 145 miles straight north of Philadelphia in Wayne County, undergo a slight transformation, from 400 acres of fun to something with a more serious purpose, perceptible only if you lean and listen, or notice the tears that sometimes fall.

"Man, I came here thinking, 'I'm going to bring my light to camp,' but I have to carry Kleenex with me at all times," said Abraham "A.B." Torres, 23, a volunteer from Coachella, Calif. "I'm a very stoic, positive individual, but being here this week has really opened a floodgate of emotions for me."

Experience Camps, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, runs these programs for children entering fourth through 11th grades who have lost a family member or primary caregiver. There are locations in five states, one as far west as California, and this year, approximately 800 youngsters were expected to attend, with 192 of them — mostly from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey — spending a recent August week at Equinunk and Blue Ridge. And the programs are free, funded by donations and sponsors.

It started with just 27 boys at Camp Manitou in Maine in 2009. Jon Derens owned and directed Manitou, and when his wife, Sara, learned that a neighboring camp was hosting grieving girls, it prompted her to invite boys to their camp. Now she's the CEO.

Children are referred to Experience Camps through bereavement centers, school counselors, families, and word of mouth. Nearly 80 percent of the campers are returnees. Often, siblings come together. Most of them, approximately 60 percent, have lost a loved one to illness, along with violence, suicide, accidents, and drug- and alcohol-related deaths.

Large, classic, bunk-style camps such as Equinunk and Blue Ridge are common in Pennsylvania, taking up thousands of rural acres, accommodating a constant turnover of tenants, along with weddings and corporate team-building events. Before the grieving campers arrived, Equinunk and Blue Ridge hosted a Christian group. When they leave, football teams will fill the bunks.

The American Camp Association said "purpose-driven" camps have existed for at least a century, and the organization accredits approximately 2,400 nationwide, including Equinunk and Blue Ridge. One of the largest is Camp Erin, which offers children's bereavement camps similar to Experience Camps, serving thousands of children at facilities all over the country, including locations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Camp Erin was created by former Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer, who was inspired to help after he and his wife met and befriended Erin Metcalf, a teen who later died of liver cancer.

"We all have to deal with it, and I think everybody deals with it in their own ways," Moyer told The Inquirer in 2007. But "seeing children grieve, a lot of times they don't know where to go. They don't know how to deal with it. It's unfortunate."

Grief can be alienating for adults and children as the physical death fades further into the past. Closure, an ill-defined word, is often seen as a finish line, and some unfamiliar with grief's long, aching aftershocks believe stoicism is the way to get there. That's not how the camp works, and more often than not, being around people who haven't "gotten over" deaths themselves somehow inches everyone forward.

"The big thing we try to get across here is that our grief is something that stays with us. It's not something we're trying to get over or take away from people," said Dan Wolfson, a psychologist and the clinical director for the boys' side of the camp. "It's something we're helping kids adapt to. We help them get a feel for what adaptation might look like."

Among campers, volunteers, and staffers, this week away from home is often referred to simply as "grief camp," but COO Lexie Radwan said there's far more joy, s'mores, and bonding than the term suggests. When the bus arrives, all 100 staffers and volunteers are there to cheer the kids on, to dispel whatever dread they'd been carrying with them.

"We really, really want them to know this is going to be a fun week," she said. "I would say it's 80 percent camp and 20 percent clinical."

Children are free to share as many details as they'd like about what brought them there, or none at all.

Jahmeer, 12, from South Philly, sat in the circle under the pavilion with the other boys and their counselors. This was his second year at the camp, and being here, with kids who get what he's going through, means a lot, he said. Jahmeer lost his father in 2009. He didn't say how he died.

"My little sisters, they were, like, just born, so they didn't have a lot of time with him," he said. "They'll cry sometimes, so I'll tell them about good times."

At home, around friends in Philly, Jahmeer wears a mask. They were asked to decorate the inside of their masks with how they feel, while the outside is what they project to the world.

"I put little black teardrops on my mask," he said.

Over at the girls' camp, younger children braided one another's hair and made bracelets, posing for every camera they saw before lunch. Some older girls sat in a circle on a basketball court, tossing the ball to one another, and each had to name a celebrity when she caught it.

"Beyoncé," one yelled.

"Billie Eilish," another said.

One girl, however, sat alone in the grass about 50 yards away, and a volunteer soon walked over to join her. Each volunteer has buddies to check in on, along with telling them to go to bed, brush their teeth, and go back to sleep.

"I'll tell you, little girls get up way too early," one volunteer said.

At the camp's 75-acre lake, Jordan, 15, from South Philly, stood on the dock in a life jacket. She's in her third year at grief camp, and believes that her role there has evolved as she's gotten older. Jordan lost her older brother when she was 10.

"I feel like this year, we're more like leaders for the little kids, and we need to be role models," she said. "Last year at the fire, little girls would come up to me crying, and I'd say, 'It's OK,' the same way our counselors did for me."

Later in the week, amid the quiet of Equinunk and Blue Ridge's large, meditative bonfires, all the campers would be encouraged to share their stories one last time before they went home. But there were still a few more meals to get through, including a raucous lunch in a cavernous mess hall, where a mix of laughter and classic summer-camp chants rose up from the table, one bunkhouse claiming superiority over another.

Everyone smiled over meatballs. No one wore a mask.




Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer,