"I'd rather stay here than go home. I would stay here for the rest of the summer," said 10-year-old Doris Guevara as she watched her fellow campers play with water balloons on a sunny Saturday morning.
Guevara, an Alexandria resident made this statement at a camp where, according to its pamphlet, "crying is encouraged."
This clearly is no ordinary camp.
Created eleven years ago by Capital Hospice, headquartered in Arlington, Point of Hope Camp is designed for children ages 7-14 who have lost a loved one within the past year. It was advertised throughout many local schools, with the majority of its participants from the D.C./Northern Virginia/Southern Maryland areas. While the camp, which ran from July 27-29 in Middleburg, stresses the acknowledgement of all types of grief from anger to sadness to fear, it also promotes fun through traditional activities like swimming and sports. "The point is that where the kids are concerned, they're having fun," said Spencer Levine, the director of communications for Capital Hospice.
IT IS THROUGH FUN, that the camp strives to make the children feel as comfortable as possible; comfortable enough to remove what art therapist, Sarah Goetzman, referred to as "the mask." This mask was drawn by each camper in the "Memory Books" they created in arts and crafts.
"They use the books to write the same things they are asked in individual therapy sessions. [They write] how they're feeling, what they may regret, what their hopes and dreams are," said Goetzman, who added that many children express dreaming that they could see their deceased loved one again. (Although one girl dreamt that she was "rich enough to buy 100 horses.")
These same books were used in daily "Healing Circles," which Levine described as the most therapeutic aspect of the camp. These circles allow the children to speak openly about their loss and their feelings with professional counselors and, perhaps more importantly, each other.
"In school if someone has lost a parent or sibling they could feel like they are the only one going through it. [Through the circles] they relate to others who have lost a loved one and they build friendships," said Kim Riley, the camp's manager.
Despite the potentially heavy content of the circles, camp officials said that no participant is forced to speak unless he or she is completely at ease doing so. "The kids go as deep as they are comfortable going. They can pull back if they feel it's best for them," said Phil Carpenter, Capital Hospice's director for family services.
RILEY HOWEVER, felt that, by taking on a leadership role the older children at the camp often influenced the younger children to open up during healing circles. "The teens are more inclined to talk about their grief openly and sometimes it can just take one person to start talking to get a group discussion going," said Riley.
Even though some older children may emerge as more vocal leaders during the program, all of its participants are given equal care and attention thanks to a "Big Buddy" system in which every camper is paired with an adult volunteer. These "Big Buddies," who are often associated with the hospice in some way, stay with their individual camper throughout all programs and are encouraged to speak about the camper’s grief without pushing or prying.
"Not pushing" is perhaps one of the most important themes of the camp, which was built upon encouraging expression in a safe, if not enjoyable way.
An example of this kind of technique is "Story Telling," which is done by professional storyteller, Gail Rosen. Through this activity — described by Carpenter as "a very backdoor entrance to grief," — the children are taught stories and songs that emphasize grieving and healing in an approach that starts out subtle but grows stronger. One particular activity of Rosen's was a ball passing game in which campers hummed a repetitive tune. Eventually words were added to the tune; the words were, "I will never leave you, even though I grieve you. Memories will keep you right here in my heart."
Another song, titled "Everybody Grieves," led to a group discussion in which Rosen posed a question. She asked, "If everybody grieves, then what is the right way?" When Rosen was met with a puzzled silence she answered her own question, "everybody's way is right."