by Beverly Crowl, Delaware Hospice
Although the scene looked like any other kids’ day camp in a state park, with tie-dyed shirts, art supplies, bats, gloves, Frisbees, and soccer balls—this camp was not the same as any camp.
As they were holding tight to the ends of their inflated balloons, Robin Murphy, team leader for the Purple Zebras, asked her girls, “What will happen if you continue blowing up your balloons? “ One answered, “It will explode.” Robin explained, “This is what happens to us when we keep our feelings inside after someone we loved dies. But if we let the air out of our balloons, even a little at a time, they’re no longer in danger of exploding, just as when you talk about the person you lost and what you are going through, you will feel better.”
Delaware Hospice’s Camp New Hope for children and teens coping with a death in the family hosted a record number of 51 campers this year. The Camp motto was “Camp is Awesome.”
The losses were tragic; but the kids and volunteers were, indeed, awesome as Camp New Hope’s safe, supportive environment allowed its magic to work, helping campers at New Hope’s 21st annual camp learn to let go of their anger, sadness, and grief.
Earline Vann, New Hope Coordinator for New Castle County, who works year-round with grieving youth in both homes and schools, organized Camp New Hope 2011. She said, “Camp New Hope is a special place for children who are in different stages of grief to come together and learn that they’re not alone. This is my third Camp, and each one has been special. This Camp was more challenging because there was a large number who had lost one of their parents.”
“Our team leaders were amazing. They are hospice professionals who know how to support and navigate the grief journeys, and they met the day to day challenges, recognizing who needed additional support and meeting the unique needs of each child.
“As always, kids were reluctant to come to a “bereavement camp.” But after the first day of telling their stories and recognizing that others had similar losses and feelings, they bonded well. “
Robby Munkittrick, 16 years old, and his sisters, Erin, 15, and Lauren, 13, from Wilmington, lost their mother in July. Robby said, “I didn’t want to go to Camp, but my Dad wanted me to. So I said I’ll give it a try. Even from the first day, it was great. I miss my Mom every day, and Camp New Hope has helped me with the grieving process and learning how to cope.”
Erin agreed, “We were reluctant to come, but it was so uplifting and great. We’re surrounded by people who have experienced a loss and who know how we feel. Everybody greets you with a smile every day and makes you feel at home. The first day here, we spent time getting to know each other in our teen group. The second day, we began sharing stories. That was when I found friendships with others whom I could confide in, because I knew they would understand. I got to listen to what they had to say and what they went through, and it all related because we have all experienced a loss. For everyone to come together and share made the grieving process a lot easier.”
Vann pointed out, “For many, this may have been the first time they felt comfortable expressing their emotions or talking about their loved one.”
Nick Reed, 9 years old from New Castle, lost his grandfather. He said, “Camp helped me because my family couldn’t talk about Pop Pop without crying because he was a good man. He always let me go fishing with him any time I asked; he never got in a fight with anyone. Here, I could talk about all my feelings and my memories.”
Camp New Hope keeps the campers busy with a strategic balance of grief and memorial activities and fun, sports games or nature walks. The kids might spend an hour sharing stories of their losses or painting a memory box in honor of their loved one, and then enjoy a game of soccer or a water balloon battle.
Vann said, “The activities we provide help reduce stress and teach the children how to release their stress in a positive way. We emphasize physical activity, nature, art therapy, and communication. Of course, we see a lot of tears, but tears can be healthy and healing.”
Keleigh Earl, 8 years old from Bear, lost her father as well as two of her aunts. She said, “I like Camp New Hope because I get to do things I like to do, like be outside in nature and act like I’m camping.”
Donations helped make Camp New Hope special, such as Chick-Fil-A’s lunch on Tuesday with a visit from the “Eat More Chikin” Cow, and the University of Delaware’s staff donation of baked goods. Special guests made a positive impact on our kids. The Purple Poet Lady encouraged campers to creatively express their emotions; the therapy dogs allowed children to pet and brush them; and our Zumba instructor motivated a surprising number of campers, as well as counselors, to get up and dance.
Camp New Hope concluded with a memorial service, one of the most important Camp activities. Vann explained, “For some, there was no opportunity to attend a funeral or memorial service and this may be their first opportunity to be a part of a service in memory of their loved one. It provides a crucial sense of closure.”
Feedback from parents has been phenomenal. One parent said, “Coming to camp was a pivotal experience for him and his children, because they learned that they weren’t communicating about the death. They were sweeping it under the rug, exploding on the inside. Now they are able to talk.”
Camp New Hope is made possible with the tremendous support of volunteers. Vann acknowledged their contributions: “We were so honored by the passion and hard work of our volunteers, some of whom take vacation time to be there every year. It takes a special person to give up their time for a bereavement camp; many do so because they’ve also experienced a loss as well. They can relate to the kids better than someone who hasn’t. In fact, many of our teens return as volunteers in later years.”
Andrea Davis of Wilmington has been a Delaware Hospice volunteer for several years. According to Andrea, when her father became seriously ill, Delaware Hospice helped make the rest of their time together special. She and her husband decided to become hospice volunteers as soon as they retired.
Andrea never misses Camp New Hope. She said, “The first year, I was asked to simply be the bus monitor. But after just one day, I knew that I needed to be more involved. I’ve enjoyed working closely with the children at Camp every year since.”
Andrea feels that Camp New Hope is a wonderful resource and a precious gift to our children who have lost loved ones. “It’s empowering and inspirational. Counselors learn from the children, and the children find positive ways to grieve, rather than hurtful or negative outlets. They are surrounded by people who have gone through similar losses. They learn that loss is a part of life and grief is a part of life; and they learn that it’s okay to grieve and that there’s no set way to do it.”
Perhaps the most important gift of Camp New Hope is the bonding with new friends; and, in our modern world, connections are immediate. Campers had become Facebook friends and were regularly texting each other even before the last day—just like any other camp.
About Delaware Hospice
Since 1982, Delaware Hospice has provided exceptional care and support to 36,000 patients and their families. Its mission is to help each patient, each day, live the fullest, most comfortable life possible. Delaware Hospice is the largest and only licensed, nonprofit, community-based hospice serving New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties in Delaware and southern Chester and Delaware counties in Pennsylvania. Delaware Hospice is honored to be accredited by the Joint Commission, the nation’s leading health care standards-setting and accrediting organization. For more information about Delaware Hospice’s programs and services, upcoming events, or employment opportunities, call 800-838-9800 or visit our website, www.delawarehospice.org.