Tales from a midstate grief camp

Written by Craig Cohen | Jul 8, 2009 4:25 PM

When I got there, it was Saturday afternoon. The kids were playing games. They were shouting and laughing. It really didn't look like a grief camp to me. When the game ended and the campers were being rounded up for dinner, they spotted me. I wasn't sure if the children, ages 7 through 12, were going to want to open up to me, a stranger with a microphone. But they did.


The campers I spoke to were all very candid about their loss. They told me about their father who died in a car crash and their brother who committed suicide. And most of them spoke matter-of-factly. No tears. Zoey Bower, an 8-year-old from Trevorton, Northumberland County, told me that her father died on Valentine's Day. She said the crafts and other camp activities got him off her mind though, so she loved being at camp. Owen Walter and his sister from Mifflinburg, Union County, were signed up for camp by their mother. Owen spoke about his brother's death and what fun he was having at Camp Koala. The themes were universal: camp is "awesome" but talking about their loss is tough and necessary.


I got to witness an art therapy session first-hand. The youngsters didn't seem to realize that the masks they were decorating to look like a superhero was part of their therapy. They were too busy adding paint and glitter and having a grand old time. 


Another therapy session called the share circle was just like it sounds...the kids and volunteers sat in a circle and talked about their feelings of loss. But it went beyond that. The kids each took a rock and threw it in the center of the circle after they spoke, it was a metaphor for dropping a weight off their chest. They also got rock necklaces with different colored strings that symbolized their strength in getting through their grief. Adults and kids alike take turns talking and crying. They played trust games and ended the session with hugs. I even got a couple of hugs.


It didn't take long for the campers to shake off the sadness and within about half an hour we were gathered around a campfire where everyone began singing silly songs and roasting marshmallows.


The next day when I showed up again, the campers acted like I was their long lost friend. They welcomed me back and were excited to see me. There was one camper in particular, Elizabeth French, who warmed up to me instantly. And when I asked her if there was anything else she wanted to tell me for the radio, she said into the microphone, "Ummm, I like you!" 


The goodbyes seemed tougher on the adults than the children. The campers were leaving with their families and many hopped into cars with smiles on their faces. But the volunteers seemed more sullen. I, too, started feeling a bit dejected, the way I used to feel when summer camp was over.


Lucky for me, I got to go home and relive the weekend over while writing this story. Find out more about Camp Koala here.

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