You are not alone - Kids find support at Camp Courage

Posted by Kirsten Jensen, Volunteer

You are not alone - Kids find support at Camp Courage
Kristen Jensen with Camp Courage campers.

Camp Courage is JourneyCare’s bereavement camp and activities for children and teens, ages 6-13, who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

When I took it on, I assumed being a Camp Courage volunteer would be tough. I knew that spending a week with kids ages 6-13 who had recently experienced a significant death would challenge my emotional wherewithal. Given my career working with the juvenile justice system and the skills I developed in that role, I decided I could handle it. But I learned, until you are there, you can’t truly anticipate the reality and rewards of Camp Courage.

Sharing Their Journeys
Monday morning begins with a memorial service acknowledging the lives of those lost. A lot of kids are clinging closely to their parents. The Camp Courage Chaplain gives a moving talk about how we can keep those we love close to us, even if they are no longer here. The music therapists provide a soothing accompaniment as the first family shares their story.

In this instance, a father hugging his young daughter and son, places on the table a photograph of a woman. He speaks briefly about the hole left in their lives by the loss of his beloved wife and mother to his children. He talks about how she made their lives special, and how he is trying his best to keep her spirit alive in their children. His children bury their faces in his legs, stifling their tears.

Three brothers close in age bring up photos of their baby sister; they take turns talking about their favorite times with her. They talk of singing her songs and having contests to see who could make her smile. As brothers often do, they had a little disagreement about who could make her smile more.

More families share their unique yet universal stories of loss, love and heartache. Some talk about the relief that their long-suffering loved one was released from pain. Others talk about how they had only a few days between diagnosis and death, and how the shock of their loss was still strong. It’s hard to find a dry eye in the house.

Jacob's Story
I want to share with you a story of a 10-year-old boy that was in my group. For privacy reasons, we will call him Jacob. His father had died several months before camp. Jacob was afraid to separate from his mother at the beginning of Camp. During the first day of activities, he was hesitant to participate and would use the blankets we gave the kids to put over his head and disappear from the group.

During our first exercise he was unable to share any information about his dad (favorite food, hobby, memory). When it came his turn, Jacob would say, “I’m blank,” or “I don’t know.”

The family picture shared at the Memorial had the family decked out in Chicago Cubs gear. I inquired gently if his father was a Cubs or Sox fan. “I don’t know” and a blanket over his head were his responses.

As the week progressed, we focused on coping skills and building on memories. Jacob seemed to pay close attention to a girl in our group who had lost her mother 15 months prior to camp. She was a returning camper. (We allow kids to return for a second session of camp if there is space availability.) He would listen to how her family built traditions to remember their mother. They became friends.

As the week progressed he opened up more and more. He would laugh and run around with new friends. It became easier for him to talk about his dad. He no longer hid under his blanket.

Camp Courage culminates in a “Showcase” on Friday. Each group performs for the parents and the rest of the campers. There are nearly 100 people in the audience. The kids in our group decided that they were going to make a collage about their loved ones and each share a part of the presentation. On Thursday, Jacob acknowledged that he might not share about his dad, but he had the backing of group members who said they would speak for him if he got too nervous or emotional.

After the memorial service on Friday and fun games for the families, we got together for our last look at the collage before the Showcase started. Our Showcase began as planned, and ended with Jacob proudly talking about the things his dad loved.

Campers Learn They Are Not Alone
It was so encouraging and moving to see the transformation in this camper, Jacob. He went from hiding under his blanket, to hugging the Camp Courage stuffed lion, to standing on stage talking to a picnic shelter filled with families about memories of his dad.

We each have a different takeaway from an experience as profound as Camp Courage. I believe Jacob took away that he was not alone in his grief. He could remember his dad with pride and joy.

Learn about Camp Courage and fill out an online application on our JourneyCare website at journeycare.org/campcourage.

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