Going to a bereavement camp might sound scary. Especially if you're a kid.
Becky Loy, founder of Camp HOPE along with her husband, Marty, tries to make the camp as welcoming as possible. The message she conveys is "we know where you're at; join us and trust us for a day and a half."
Twenty-five years ago, the Loys' infant daughter died. Becky Loy was looking for something to do to feel less alone. She found herself becoming interested in helping children in their own grief: "There was nothing much out there, at the time, for children."
While looking for resources, Loy found a camp for grieving children in Iowa. Loy called the people who ran it and asked if she might start one in Wisconsin.
It quickly becomes apparent that Loy doesn't wait for things to happen; she makes them happen. She consulted the director of the Iowa camp. She and her husband started fundraising, set a camp date, and six months later, the first Camp HOPE session took place.
Camp HOPE (an acronym for Help Others' Pain End) takes place three times a year - in May, October and February, with February a special reunion session for campers who have attended previously. The camp is free; Loy runs it on the money she raises. At the time her daughter died, she'd never done anything like it. "I had an English degree from UW-Madison," says Loy. She was the kind of person who didn't seek out groups: "I sought out books."
Camp can't fix everything, Loy acknowledges. "There's much more to it, and we don't deny that." Her philosophy is to "keep camp as simple as possible" and make sure that no camper feels judged.
Children come who've lost a best friend, anyone in their family, or even a teacher. For children, Loy says, a teacher's death can be "a tremendous loss."
But most of the time, it's a parent who has died. Camp counselors are volunteers, some who work in counseling professionally, some "just folks like me," says Loy, who go through training before camp begins.
Therapy dogs are on hand to greet campers. The day includes physical activities like hiking the trails, fishing or boating on the camp lake, and drumming ("a tension-breaker," says Loy), as well as making a memory collage and other more focused grief work. Loy has a partnership with a horse rescue organization where the children, especially the girls, enjoy riding and grooming the horses. The first day might end with songs, a movie and popcorn.
Many kids have not had any help in their grief, says Loy. When the child has lost a parent, he or she is often protective of the surviving parent, and so will tend to "bottle it all up. Here they can cry, they're not hurting anybody, there's no one they have to protect."
Jane Olson of Madison admits that when she first heard about Camp HOPE, "It sounded, at the time - no."
Her husband had passed away in April; the next Camp HOPE session was in May, and it was "too soon." But when the October session rolled around, Olson and her two sons, ages 7 and 13, headed up north to camp, east of Stevens Point near Rosholt. For both her kids and herself, Olson says that the key to Camp HOPE is the chance to spend time with other people in the same situation, people "who really get it."
Although they had supportive friends and family members, being with other people who'd also lost a spouse or parent made all the difference, says Olson. "Before we went to Camp HOPE, we didn't really talk. I didn't want to; the kids didn't want to. It was fresh, and I think we didn't want to get all upset."
After dropping the kids at the children's camp, Olson made her way to the adult camp, about 10 minutes down the road. "It's like a big living room, with a fireplace. There were different activities, wonderful meals, time to relax."
Though she didn't expect it, a drumming session was surprisingly helpful, as was journaling, yoga, a survivor skills session and a candlelight memory ceremony where "we went around and told our stories. It was emotional, but good to get it all out."
Meanwhile, at the kids camp, her children were "bonding with other kids, playing games and sports - but talking at the same time." When the adult and the kids' camps reunited at the close of the weekend, everyone released balloons to symbolize "something we needed to let go of."
Olson's older son, who'd initially been resisting going to the camp at all, came up to her and said, "Can we come back in February?"
The February reunion session is not the only opportunity for campers to return. "Even after two, three, five years, you can still go any time," says Olson. "Becky accepts everybody. She's just one of those people."
Both the children and adults end up making friends they stay in contact with via social media. Olson made friends from Cottage Grove and Waunakee, whom she meets for lunch. She's joined a local support group for young widows. Still, the opportunity to do the activities at Camp HOPE "made me feel so much better," she says. "It really helped us out.
"We cried there, but we also laughed."