From Camper to Counselor at Camp Courage
Posted by David Hennessey
Camp Courage is JourneyCare’s bereavement camp for kids who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Twenty-five years ago, my dad's cancer returned. I was 9 years old at the time and didn't fully understand the magnitude of the situation. He declined quickly, and only four months after his diagnosis, he died. This trauma still lives with me today, but I have been able to live with it thanks to the support I received in the aftermath.
The most significant boost I received at that time was from JourneyCare. My mom immediately enrolled our family in their monthly grief support groups, and it was there that I learned that I wasn't alone in this world. While my experiences were unique — like anyone else's — I took comfort in knowing that there were other children that would be going on a similar life journey to my own.
From that monthly group sprung the idea of Camp Courage. In the summer of 1995, my brother and I, along with several other participants set off to Camp Duncan in what would be the first iteration of Camp Courage. I fondly remember some of the activities we did that summer — memory boxes, team building exercises, music therapy — and all of that helped teach me coping skills. However, the main takeaway I got from camp is that I could still be a kid. I didn't need to let my loss define me. I could swim, play sports, rock climb and do all the things any other 10-year-old could do. I, in a way, could be normal.
Returning to Camp Courage
Camp Courage left a lasting impression on me that made me want to return this summer as a volunteer counselor after all this time. We learn best from experience, and I believed that my experiences could be used to pass on knowledge and guidance to a new generation of kids who find themselves in a spot that I'm familiar with.
When I started camp as a volunteer this summer, I realized that not much has changed. Kids today aren't really that different from the way they were 20 years ago. They still crave attention, they need adult support to get them through difficult times, and they need an environment that allows for expression. All of those factors still exist at Camp Courage.
What surprised me at camp this summer was how insightful and reflective these kids could be. They are very aware of the world around them, and their losses are very much a part of them. They are smart, witty and eager to share. This gave me joy because I know that as long as you continue to grieve, communicate and self-reflect, you'll be able to continue on. Camp Courage helped these kids sharpen those skills, and its impact cannot be understated.
The big difference between 1994 (when my father died) and 2019 is that now our lives are on constant showcase. We are easily connected with one another whether we like it or not. Those facts make navigating a loss increasingly difficult. That is why, in this day and age, programs like Camp Courage are fundamental to the grieving process. Both children and adults need that face-to-face interaction; they need a space to be free and let their emotions be unjudged.
It was an honor to return to camp after all this time, and I'm proud to see it going strong after so many years.
JourneyCare offers Camp Courage, a free bereavement camp for children ages 6-13, that serves families in the Chicago area. Camp Courage was held in July at YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside Illinois, providing a safe space for kids to swim, rock climb and enjoy nature. The week-long camp incorporates reflection and honoring of loved ones through two special memorial services for the family members that have passed away.
Learn about JourneyCare's other grief support programs for children and teens on our website.