2011 actually marks my 15th time volunteering at a bereavement camp. I have been involved with two different camps over the last eight years. Each camp has affected me differently and provided some of the most wonderful and challenging moments. It is tough but good work to be a witness to the children’s stories and lend a shoulder to cry on when needed.
Each year I sign to not divulge details of the camp but the details on the Moyer Foundation: Camp Erin website provides the framework of the weekend:“It is a weekend-long experience filled with traditional, fun, camp activities combined with grief education and emotional support — facilitated by grief professionals and trained volunteers. At Camp Erin, children are comforted knowing that there are other children who understand exactly what they are feeling and experiencing. At Camp Erin, grieving children have an opportunity to address their feelings and memorialize their loved ones. They are provided with tools and resources for use during and after camp, including memories and friendships that last long after camp is complete.”
My weekend generally begins at sign-in. I typically ride the bus down so instead of meeting the kids as they get off the bus, I get to see them as they first arrive and are dropped off. The campers are generally filled with mixed emotions: anxiety, excitement and some grief over being separated from their loved one. Bus riders get to meet the children early and try to relieve them of some of their anxiety and get them excited about the weekend ahead. We also get to do crowd control, on the bus, as sometimes they are the little bundles of energy I’ve noted before and the excitement and stress of the upcoming weekend leads them to expressing those emotions verbally or physically, unable to sit still. We make it successfully to camp each year though and even on the bus, the children start to bond with their other campers.
Once off the bus, the campers are greeted by their camp counselors and the other cabin volunteers. The camp counselors definitely deserve praise, they are all incredibly capable of putting the children at ease and making them comfortable with sharing their story. While the counselors provide a safe structure, it is their fellow campers who fill in the details and play a large role in creating an environment they are comfortable in. The campers quickly realize they are not alone and are surrounded by others who have had a similar experience in losing a love one. This acknowledgement leads to strong bonds among the children and soon they are pairing up, or even as an entire cabin, claiming each other as life-long friends and supporters. This year has reminded me that some children can be very cruel but that is not an emotion generally seen at camp. While the campers may not always be perfect angels, amongst themselves, they are comrades and are more often in roles of supporting and encouraging their other cabin-mates, not tearing them down. Many bond, in fact, over their shared pain in being treated poorly by those who have not had this experience or feel threatened by it. Over the weekend they share more of themselves, their history, and continue to strengthen their bonds amongst themselves.
As a Cabin Volunteer, my role for the weekend is another member of the support team: listening to their stories and letting them know the weekend is about them. Depending on the age of the campers (and perhaps my age), this has provided me with many new buddies, a new shadow, and someone who probably thought I was “mean”. The disciplinarian role is not my favorite but the boundaries do keep them safe, even if they refuse to understand why they can’t run wild and wander where ever they please. I generally prefer to be a friend though, trading “silly bandz”, as I hear more about them. Regardless of the role, I know my presence is important and aids in the incredible experience of the camp.
Over the years, the memories of camp become various snippets and something will trigger a memory of what a camper told me or something I experienced at camp. I know I can never see a blue jay without the words of one of my campers coming to mind. In the years ahead, I expect I will remember this year with my nature walk, on my break (breaks are important!), where I saw hawks circling and saw a large lizard scurrying about as I tried to collect my thoughts after a particular heavy discussion amongst my cabin. The camp is definitely challenging. It is hard to hear a child express the pain of loss or poor treatment by others. It puts me in guardian mode, wishing I had the super powers that would allow them to be without pain. Their effort of verbalizing this hurt is a step to their healing though so being an audience member allows an active role (even if it cannot be an immediate *zap* that relieves them of all pain.)
It is thus perhaps a mixed blessing that your connection with the campers end on the last day. I often wonder how they are but I feel confident that camp has benefited them and I am honored to play a role in it. I often hear people say they don’t think they could volunteer at a Bereavement Camp. Perhaps that is true for some but I believe if you are compassionate and care about children, you could do it. Yes, it is challenging, your heart may break a little, your own grief may surface, and tears may fall, but there is a transformation. You will be changed and so will the children, for the better. It is an unforgettable experience.
It occurred to me after I published this that it may not be obvious how to get involved in a Bereavement Camp. Certainly, the link to Camp Erin website will show where they hold camps across the country. If there is not one nearby, check with your local Hospice (at times there are multiple in an area). Scan their website for notices about a Bereavement Camp or give them a call!
Benefits of volunteering at a Bereavement camp -
- You will play an important role in the healing of a child experiencing grief. (It is an amazing challenge but well worth it!)
- You get to share in something very powerful with a network of people with similar intentions.
- As mentioned previously – Children are wonderful: they are smart, funny, generous and caring.
- It is challenging but the activities over the weekend are both fun -AND- rewarding!
Who you’ll be working with –
- Children! Your volunteer opportunity would determine the age and children do have different personalities at the various ages. Younger have a reputation of being sweeter while older children often get a bad rap but can make-up for any potential “attitude” with their deep thoughts. At all ages, they will definitely offer something in return.
- Wonderful camp counselors, dedicated to the children’s growth and healing.
- Other wonderful camp volunteers like yourself.
Level of commitment necessary – (ranges by organization & activity)
- As a cabin volunteer, the commitment is the entire weekend.
- *You may or may not be sleeping in the same cabin with the kids (yes, they can talk most of the night)
- *Your emotions are definitely engaged and challenged as you experience the weekend with the children.
- Other opportunities include Weekend volunteers who come out for the day and help with the camp-related activities.
- Depending on your role, finger-printing may be required.