Not Your Everyday Camp Experience – It’s So Much More

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By: Allison Apple, KCH Donor Specialist

Summer camp. 

Swimming, making friends, eating s’mores – everything “summer” crammed into just a few days.

My most recent camp experience was a few weeks ago as a volunteer at Camp Erin – Kansas City, hosted by the Kansas City Hospice (KCH) grief support team and the team from Solace House Center for Grief and Healing, a program of Kansas City Hospice – in partnership with the Eluna Network.

Camp Erin is a camp like one I’ve never attended and – I’d hazard a guess – you haven’t either. 

It’s an overnight grief camp for families with children who are grieving the loss of a close loved one. This camp fell during Father’s Day weekend and was almost exclusively families who lost their dad/husband. I’m fairly certain this was coincidental, and even though these important men died in different ways and at different times, the way these young people bonded with each other was inspiring.

Anticipation
I was full of mixed emotions as I drove in…nervous because I didn’t know many peers working or volunteering. Excited because I knew it would be a healing experience for hurting families. Apprehensive because I knew there would be emotionally heavy moments and I wasn’t sure how I would react.

But as I was feeling all of this, my mind went to the families who were likely experiencing even more raw emotion. Camp would focus on a significant loss in their lives – for nearly two straight days.

One of the teens makes her luminary in honor of her dad. While the teens made their luminaries, they shared their favorite memories with their fathers.

How It Started
The opening ceremony was the first time we were all in the same space. KCH Chaplain Sam Gallegos and his son led the activities and as I looked around the room, I saw moms with their children, many trying to hide the same drained look with a nervous smile. It looked to be a mix of exhaustion from wrangling the kids for a grief camp on top of dealing with the unexpected feelings this camp brought to the surface.

Most of the kids themselves wore disinterest on their faces: especially the teens. I immediately became skeptical of the camp’s outcome.

Getting Real
After the opening ceremony, we broke into the groups we would be with for the next two days. I was with the teen group, helping Maggie and Michaela, our staff facilitators. As we filed into our classroom for the first time, it was clear it was going to take some work to get the teens to open up. As expected, each of the teens kept to themselves – except for two sisters who kept to each other – and barely looked up from the fidget toys and stuffed animals they were given at registration. 

Each kid camp participant created a luminary in honor of their loved one. These luminaries were lit with candles and displayed during the luminary ceremony, where each camper had the opportunity to share something about their loved one.

Grief often isn’t visible, and by just looking at these teens, I didn’t know the pain they were going through. Our teen group was made up of four girls, including A, who lost her dad in February of this year after battling a virus, H, whose dad was killed in a car accident while she was living with him in Texas, and P & E, sisters whose dad died in the hospital while fighting cancer. 

The group was quiet for what felt like a few hours, reluctantly answering Maggie’s and Michaela’s questions with one or two words. That changed when Michaela asked what I thought was a tough question. I don’t remember exactly what she asked, but something along the lines of, “What’s been the hardest part about losing your dad?”

H, whose dad died in a car accident last July, was the first to truly open up. As she shared her story, I realized how much she lost when he died. She grew up in Texas, where her dad taught her to play softball and coached her teams. Her parents separated a few years ago, and she stayed in Texas with her dad while her mom moved to Kansas City. Then her dad suddenly and tragically died. H and her younger brother had to move to Kansas City to live with their mom, saying goodbye to their friends and life in Texas as they knew it. This last year, H not only mourned the loss of her dad but also made new friends at a new school in a new state. She shared that they’re soon moving to a different city in the metro area, so she’ll again make new friends at a new school. (H continues to play softball and feels this helps her stay connected with her dad. She’ll participate in the 2024 All American Games this summer and hopes to make him proud.)

Even though H was slow to share, she led the way. Almost immediately, others began to share memories of their dads and some of the experiences they’ve faced.

As the girls talked, the energy shifted. The more one shared, the more experiences the next person shared. One girl’s comment would lead to another agreeing or sharing a similar experience. 

New Alliances
Before I knew it, this group of four became friends, bonded so closely you never saw one without the other three. When the group sessions ended for the day, the girls left the classroom together. They went to the pool, walked to dinner, played bingo, and attended the luminary ceremony together. They were inseparable – bonded over their shared experience.

The luminary ceremony was held on the first evening of camp. Here, during the story portion of the ceremony, KCH team member Joel Carmer reads “The Memory Tree” by Britta Teckentrup while KCH team member Jacque Zahabi shows the pictures.

Now, I Get It
When I left camp Saturday, my skepticism was long gone. I understood.

This camp is a true place of solace for participants. Though there’s no way to take away their immense pain, camp provided a support network they’ll have for years. It’s a privilege to play a small part in each of their journeys. I’m truly grateful I had the opportunity to volunteer at Camp Erin. 

P.S. I’d like to give a shout out to all of the wonderful volunteers who provided snacks for the weekend. From fresh fruit to freshly baked muffins and scones to peanut butter crackers and Little Debbies, campers enjoyed it ALL! Thank you for such a thoughtful contribution!

NOTE – Camps are offered at no cost to participants, thanks to generous donors. Until July 31, 2024, we have a matching gift opportunity. To learn more about corporate gift matching, please contact Karen Massman VanAsdale. To learn more about individual gift matching, please contact Mary Zahner Bauer.

1 Comments

  1. Debbie McWatters on July 10, 2024 at 4:13 pm

    What a wonderful story Allison wrote about her camp experience. I am sure each year is different as are the participants. The campers played bingo and appeared to have a lot of fun. After bingo everyone attended the luminary ceremony. Dr. Iman started out with a wonderful talk about losing someone you love then she offered the campers the opportunity to share about the their loved one that they had lost. It took a few minutes before a small brave child walked up front to share. In the meantime I panicked and thought someone has got to start this and I was thinking maybe I could share about the loss of my husband 12 years ago to get it started but that wasn’t needed due to the bravery of that young child. By the end of the ceremony most had expressed their feelings or memories of the loss of their loved one. It has been 15 years or more since I had volunteered at camp and I am looking forward to volunteering again next year!

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