Kids mourning loss of family members find comfort at Camp Erin 

When you're 6 years old and your mother dies, what do you do? You've barely learned to tie your shoelaces, and all of a sudden, one of the most important people in your small world is gone.

Many children don't even have the words to describe their fear, confusion and anger when a close family member dies. Whether they've lost a parent, a sibling or even a cousin, most children need help to deal with such a monumental change in their lives.

That's the idea behind Camp Erin, a weekend-long bereavement camp for children ages 6 to 17 who are mourning the loss of a loved one.

Camp Erin was founded nationally in 2000 by Major League baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen, who established the program in honor of Erin Metcalf, a young woman who developed liver cancer at age 15. And so, Camp Erins across the country were born, including one in Donnelly.

Idaho's Camp Erin had its first season last year, and is currently registering children for this year's camp held August 17 through August 19. Located at the Cascade Lake 4H Camp facilities, the program combines high-energy camp activities with emotional support to help kids ages cope with loss and learn to grieve in a healthy way. Shepherding the children through the process are bereavement counselors from Life's Doors Hospice and community volunteers who are trained by hospice employees.

The Donnelly camp was established through a $100,000 endowment from the Moyer Foundation and the support of local businesses, community organizations and volunteers, according to Amy Zimerman, executive director of the camp.

"As a partner with the Moyer Foundation, we were challenged to raise $75,000 in an 18-month period. Because of a large support base in the Treasure Valley, the camp not only raised the funds but was the first camp in the Moyer Foundation to complete the challenge grant," she said

It costs between $250 and $300 for each child who attends camp, but because of the grant, all campers attend free, a welcome blessing for families already struggling with grief.

Zimerman said campers come from a wide range of situations and all react differently to death, depending on their relationship with the person who died. Sometimes siblings attend camp together, which can be very helpful for a family whose entire dynamics have turned topsy-turvy, Zimerman said.

"The children have lost the normalcy of their lives. We provide them with a safe place to talk with people who understand," she said. Camp counselors keep kids involved in a number of recreational activities to help them "blow off energy." Arts and crafts, letter writing, and special journaling projects are also included to help children express their feelings.

"We let them know that it's OK to feel anger, sadness and even happiness," Zimerman noted.

Many of the volunteers working at Camp Erin also have lost loved ones and have expressed to Zimerman how they wished they had had a Camp Erin during their grieving process.

Society's general approach to death is not to talk too much about it. But, with death now being a part of these kids' lives, Camp Erin can give them the framework to work through the scariness of it all.

"It's a wonderful atmosphere with great peer-to-peer bonding," Zimerman said. And the best part, she said, is that kids in need of support can come back to Camp Erin as many times as they want.

For more information about registering a child for camp, donating funds or volunteering, contact Amy Zimerman at Life's Doors Hospice, 208-275-0000 or visit the website at www.lifesdoors.com.

--Patti Murphy

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