Volunteer Spotlight on Jason

Jason McDermott lives in Scotland and works as an educator, delivering wellness and anti-violence programs to at-risk students. He first volunteered at ExCamps in 2016 because he loves kids and loves camp. Tragically, his own mum died the following year, and the courage and bonds he witnessed in our campers and volunteers became a key source of support in his own journey. Read on for an inspiring story of loss, connection and passion.

"One of my fondest memories of camp is my first sharing circle. I remember feeling worried and anxious doing something I'd never done before, however being able to listen and be present for a group of 12 year-old boys as they shared their stories and what brought them to camp, turned out to be one of the most humbling and beautiful moments of my life. That moment would change the trajectory of my life. Seeing these young men showing kindness, empathy and understanding for their bunkmates was extraordinary. 

I lost my mum a year later, in 2017. I was able to cope with my loss by remembering the courage and strength those boys had demonstrated the year before. When I'm not at camp, talking about loss and grief can be difficult and challenging, but when I'm at camp I find it a little bit easier. Everyone gets it. Everyone has experienced their own loss. Experience Camps is a family, one that is supportive and kind.
 
Having the privilege of working at ManEx for the past 3 years has truly changed my life in more ways than one. Camp helped me find a passion for counseling and I am now studying to become a child therapist with a Masters in School Counseling. I wasn't even sure what a therapist was until I saw them in action at camp!

Experience Camps has helped me find my calling, my way of helping to make the world a better place. It's hard to find that kind of magic anywhere else."

ExCamps Takes on the NYC Marathon: Highlight on team member Ann Morin

As a charity partner for the TCS NYC Marathon, the journey of childhood grief is symbolized with each step of the 26.2 miles run on November 4th, 2018 and every mile that is run in preparation for that day. Whether a runner runs in memory of someone, in honor of someone, as a personal goal, or because they just love to run, the seven members of our ExCamps team are raising awareness for Experience Camps, showing their support, and creating even more opportunities for grieving children to have "the best week of the year".

Ann Morin of Berlin, New Hampshire is running with “Team ExCamps” for the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon -- for Experience Camps, a national non-profit organization that works with grieving children nationwide.

Ann knows the grieving process all too well. Ann’s husband was only 36 years old when he died in 2002. At the time, their children, Keith and Christina, were only 4 and 7 years old.

5 years later, seeking some sense of comfort and peer support for her children, Keith attended the Manitou Experience in Oakland, Maine. Manitou Experience was the first Experience Camp in the United States -- free one-week camps for boys and girls who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver.

Ann cried happy tears of thankfulness each night as she saw photos and read updates from the day at camp. It was such an amazing experience for Keith as he has made lifelong friends, grown and learned that he is not alone in his grief. Today, Keith attends Manitou Experience as a counselor and gives back to an organization that has made such a tremendous impact on his own grief journey. 

“I am running for the kids to raise awareness of grief resources for children dealing with loss,” says Ann.” It is hard to deal with the death of a loved one at any age, but to be a child and experience the death of a parent is life changing. I am also running in memory of my late husband, as I know he would be thankful for the positive impact Experience Camps has made on my son’s life.”

Experience Camps is as an official charity partner of the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon.

Elijah Dives into Life at ExCamps...

Elijah's dad died of an illness when he was 5 years old - now he's 11, just started the 6th grade, and lives in John's Creek, GA. A school counselor told his mom about Experience Camps, and   he attended the program in Georgia for the first time this past summer. Despite feeling nervous about going for the first time, Elijah had an incredible week and can't wait to go back!

Here's what his mom, Leigh, tells us about Elijah:

Elijah is a bright and energetic young man.  He participates in Boy Scouts, basketball, youth church, and he does well in school. He misses the love of his father, but he is working everyday  on how to deal with the emptiness.  

I am proud of him for being open to going to camp. It was his first year and he really learned a lot. He enjoyed talking with others who identified with his loss. Both of my parents are still living   so at times I have no clue how he really feels, I only know it hurts. It really helped Elijah to be   with others who "get it" and not feel so alone on his fatherless journey.

I wish our family and friends could understand what it's like. Some people feel that since Elijah was only 5 when his Dad died, how could it still affect him? But grief is ongoing and it changes  over time. Most people don't really understand that unless they've been through it.

Experience Camps is part of our village now. He really felt the sincerity and love there. I am so happy I found this program and I look forward to when my son can come back as an ambassador for others when he is older.

Camper Spotlight on Jake

Jake's mom, Wendy, passed away suddenly on January 4th, 2014.  She was an extremely vibrant, energetic, and creative woman, and Jake was the light of her life.

Fortunately, my sister, Sara, was the founder of Experience Camps so I knew what ManEx was all about. I knew that the best place for Jake to deal with and understand his grief would be there.

Jake is an intelligent, energetic, athletic young man whose sense of humor keeps things light every day. He's a straight-A student who never gives me an ounce of trouble except for the routine 14 year old boy antics!  His middle school baseball team recently won their first championship, and Jake was given an award for being player of the year. He loves to hang out with his buddies watching the Yankees or playing video games.

Jake loves going to ManEx and looks forward to it each year. He has made several good friends who he keeps in contact with throughout the year. He loves the food, the activities, the down time and just being around kids who have experienced similar things that he has. 

It has not been an easy ride trying to juggle the role of both mom and dad, but Jake has sure made it much easier than it could have been. He had every excuse in the world to become a troubled kid due to the tragedy that he suffered, but he has truly been the opposite of that. It is a pleasure to raise him and watch him grow into the young man he has become. I consider myself extremely lucky to be his dad.

-Marc Stollar, ManEx dad

Ryan's Speech at the Miami Fundraiser

At our Miami fundraiser on May 5th, we welcomed BluEx camper, Ryan, to the stage to share his story and his feelings on camp with the 350 guests who came out to support him and his fellow campers. Here's what Ryan shared with us...

Hello. My name is Ryan. I am thirteen years old and I’m from Lake Worth, Florida. I’m in 8th grade at Woodlands Middle School.

When I was growing up, I knew my dad was bipolar and had problems with depression. One night, he told me and my brother he was leaving.  I had made a picture for him at school that day. He told me he didn’t need to take the picture to remember me. He hugged us goodbye, left the house and never came back.

Some people told us he had been in a car accident. I found out later he had committed suicide. When I found out what he did, I was very sad and angry. I felt completely alone. I didn’t think anyone could understand what I was feeling. It was hard for me to pay attention at school. I yelled a lot at my family when they tried to help me. I would slam the door to my room. I felt that my heart had a really bad pain that would not go away. I just wanted to be left alone.

Then my mom found out about Experience Camps. At first, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go. I had never been away for a week before and I didn’t know how it was going to be. But when I got to the airport, all the counselors were really nice. Half the plane was filled with kids who were like me.  We took a big bus to the camp and when we arrived there, it was amazing. People were cheering and waving at the bus. When we got off the bus, everyone was high fiving and super friendly. I stopped feeling nervous and was really glad I was there.

The first day was so much fun. We got assigned to cabins and I met three of the nicest counselors ever. We had a lot of activities that helped us all get to know each other and I started to talk more with the other campers. I expected the camp to be sad but it was so much fun. The whole place was amazing. It was like an awesome dream. The cabins were by a big lake. There was a diving board, jet skis, tubing, and a swimming pool. There was a skatepark, basketball court, archery, tennis court, kickball field, and lacrosse. There was even a zipline in the trees. One day we climbed a mountain and saw a waterfall. It was the coolest place I had ever been to.

We made teams for College League and called ourselves Clemson and Pitt. On our teams and in our bunks, we learned to rely on each other and trust each other. All the kids really bonded. We felt comfortable talking about the person we loved who had died. No one judged or looked at me differently. No one made me feel embarrassed to say how I felt. We had campfires and talked and had fun.

I realized all the kids who were there had lost someone they loved. I realized everything I felt was normal. I made a lot of really good friends at camp. That week at camp changed me. I stopped feeling so hurt and alone, and by the end of the week, the pain in my heart did not seem as bad. I am really grateful to everyone at Experience Camps and to everyone who helps them make these camps. I can’t wait to go back this summer!

#bestweekever

I’m Kelia, my Dad died of brain cancer when I was twenty, and his name was Stephen.  That’s the story I shared with a bunk full of 11 year old boys, and that’s the story I shared with a bunk of 14 year old boys.  And at the end of the week, some of those boys asked me if I was coming back next year, and if they’d get to hang out with me again.

I’m Kelia, my Dad died in the living room as I watched him take his final breath, and some days I still don't believe it's true.  It taught me that life is short and I should take advantage of each and every day, and I’m honoring his life by authentically and unapologetically sharing my story and encouraging others to share theirs.  That’s the story I shared with a circle of adults, in the midst of forty others telling theirs, and there wasn’t a dry eye in sight.

It's been six years since Dad died.  I've graduated college and moved out of the house and gotten promotions at work and have gone back to school and have moved some more, and it always stings that Dad can't be there to help and to celebrate.  I woke up one morning at camp, after a day of basketball and swimming and chanting and cheering, still caught in that breath of a moment thinking I'll be able to tell Dad all about how awesome camp was and how much he would've loved it.  And then I remember that I can't.

But then I remember that I don't have to tell him.  Because he already knows.  Because I carry him with me wherever I go.  And so the first people I told about camp when I got home were my brother and my sister, and I told them both I want to bring them with me next year.

These campers have faced some of the hardest times life has to offer, and yet the strength and resiliency they show simply in boarding the bus to camp reminds me that the future remains bright indeed.

We all have moments, and days, and experiences that impact our lives in an irreversible way.  Dad is dead, and that is forever true.  Grief is forever.  But so are the bonds and memories I forged with nearly two hundred people over the past week of my life, and I am wildly grateful and appreciative to have those people and that time forever be a part of my life and my story moving forward.  And for the first time in a while, I’m wholeheartedly convinced that I’m telling the story I want to be living.

Til next time,

Kelia Bergin, year one, clinical team

A Letter to the Teacher of a Grieving Child

The following letter was created with the help of campers and caregivers at Experience Camps to better explain how they want to be supported in their school-year environments. 

Dear Caring Adult,
This year, you will be working with or caring for a grieving child. Children tell us that there are often well-meaning adults in their lives who don’t really understand what they’re going through, so this letter is intended to give you a small window into what they experience. Here are a few things to know about grieving children:

  • Most kids just want to feel normal. Children who have had a parent, sibling or primary caregiver die can feel very different from their peers, and that can be isolating.  
  • School or community events that require parent involvement can be really hard when a parent has died.
  • Even if a death happened a long time ago, the child is still grieving. Grief does not follow a straight path and there is no end. It can flare up at different times of year or may be triggered by a memory.  School assignments related to family or a child’s past can become triggers.  
  • Grief can make it hard to concentrate. Allowing the child to take breaks, listen to music, or write in a journal may help. You can even ask the child “what helps when you’re feeling sad or thinking about your mom/dad/sibling/etc?”.
  • Transitional periods and stress can also trigger grief.  A child who is making a big decision may long for the parent who is not there to advise them. A difficult social situation might make them miss a parent or sibling who could comfort them or help them solve problems.

What can you do to support a grieving child?

  • Listen without judgement. Grieving children need a trusted adult to talk to and confide in.
  • Set clear limits. Grieving children are still children. They find safety in structure and clearly defined expectations.
  • Find out what helps. All children grieve differently. Speak with the parent or caregiver or ask the child to find out what they want you to know and what helps them get through difficult times.
  • Facilitate Connections. Grief can make children feel alone, so try to find ways to highlight shared experiences and similarities with other kids to help them feel connected to their peers.

To learn more about supporting grieving children, there are excellent resources at www.dougy.org/grief-resources/. Thank you for your care and support of all children, and for recognizing the individual needs of grieving children.

Best Regards,
____________________________________(parent name),
parent/caregiver of __________________________________(child’s name)*

**This letter was written with the input and advice of our campers and caregivers at Experience Camps.

A Nomination We Can All Agree On...

Dear ExCamps Friends and Supporters,

I am beyond thrilled to share with you that today, Cara Allen will begin in her new role as Clinical Director of Experience Camps. The addition of this full-time position to our team signifies the commitment to growth by our Board of Directors and allows us to broaden and deepen the emotional support of the campers and caregivers we serve.

Cara has served as Director of Camper Services for our California boys' program since 2014 and knows first-hand how impactful the combination of camp and bereavement support is for our campers. Cara holds both an MSW and a Masters of Management degree and has worked extensively in bereavement for the past 14 years, where she was awarded numerous awards in the field of social work. 

I am thankful for all of you who played a role in allowing us to reach this exciting milestone. Please join me in welcoming Cara to her new position. 

Campfully,

Sara

Get to know our new Clinical Director...

Q: What made you go into social work as a profession?

A: I have always wanted to make the world better. At least in my little corner. Social work seemed like a great way to do that.  I come from a long line of "helpers".  I was a peer counselor in high school and loved sitting in the closet "office" waiting for people to come and talk with me. I experienced a lot of death during those years, and started becoming interested in how different people cope and how society handles grief. During college I volunteered with Planned Parenthood's rape crisis center and had a powerful night with a man who had been raped and was HIV positive.  Holding his hand that night I decided I would be a social worker. 

Q: Who or what inspires you?

A: History and human resiliency. Nature. My parents. Mr. Rodgers.

Q: What has been your most memorable moment at camp?

A: One boy in tears and another putting his arm around him and saying, "It's OK to cry, man.  We're all here for you."  Beautiful. 

Q: What do you hope to be remembered for some day?

A: Leaving the world a little better. 

 

What Helps?

Grief can be very isolating. Most grievers will tell you that nobody understands how they're feeling, and even well-meaning friends can offer misguided and hurtful reactions. Most people just don't get it. By sharing these stories from 5 of our campers' caregivers, we hope to help others understand what helps and what, most definitely, does NOT.

Writing, praying and music help me to overcome the deep sadness I still struggle with. It helps to know that grief is a journey that has no end. The pain doesn't go away, but you do learn how to cope with it and how to live with it. Give yourself permission to be sad. You are the only one who knows how you feel and what is best for you. Those that helped me were the ones that didn't say anything at all. They just held me and cried with me. It helps when others talk about him and share a memory or have acknowledged either his birthday or the anniversary of his death. Statements that never help: "I know how you feel." "Time will heal." "Aren't you over it yet?" - Samantha Sage

When others asked me how they could help, I would give specifics. I needed help with my yard and learning how to take care of my home.  Friends and family stepped up to help and teach me the things that I need to know.  I talk about him.  I have not attended any grief support groups, but other widows have reached out to me to talk.  I read many articles and books on grief.  And I attended counseling (still am, but less often)...I go to his grave and have coffee with him - that is still something that I miss the most - having our early morning coffee together. - Emily Arredondo

I went back to school a few years after my husband passed.  I am now a psychiatric nurse, working with suicidal, drug addicted, and mentally unstable patients.  I feel like I have made a huge difference in the lives of my patients just by treating them with dignity and respect.  I couldn't save my husband, but if I can prevent 1 family from going through what we have gone through, it would mean the world to me. One instance of something NOT helpful was when my boss told me that she knew what I was going through because her husband had to be away for work for two weeks, which turned into four weeks. I couldn't even verbalize to her how hurtful that was.  Much later, I did have the opportunity to tell my boss that her situation was very different because she could have phone conversations with her husband and she knew he'd eventually come home.  I still think she doesn't realize how awful that was. - Christine Guerrier

To cope with my own pain and guilt I try to spread awareness to anyone that will listen. I talk about [my friend who died] and explain to people how vibrant and intelligent she was. How she took all the right steps to protect herself and even though her outcome was death, theirs does not have to be. I attend events sponsored by her foundation and post a link to her site with advice on social media for anyone that may be dealing with domestic violence. I speak with close friends and her mother to share memories about Tiana. I have shared her story with my children as it is important to me that they never experience domestic violence. - Andrea Voedisch

The first thing I did was go to counseling, and got the kids in as well. That really did help. Other things I do are still celebrate his birthday in a small way, make one of his favorite desserts, and I try to go out to eat for what would be our anniversary. I have also been back to where the accident happened a few times, not to make some sort of makeshift shrine but just to sit quietly and "talk" with him the last place we spent happy time together. What has not helped: Strangers or distant acquaintances who want details,  or being in a grocery store and having people talk about you or the accident like you are not even there.  The biggest though is friends who are there the few days after it happens and promise support and time but are nowhere to be found when you need help. Friends that offer time with my kids but never follow through.  - Ann Morin

Coping with the Holidays While Grieving

Experience Camps Clinical Director, Jenny Schreiber, and Jeff's Place Program Director, Melissa Kennedy Panto, share some important coping strategies for grieving through the holiday season.

The holiday season is often marked by an extended period of time of anticipation, frenzy, excitement, and stress.  Many non-grievers experience “holiday blues” and a myriad of emotions.  Given that situation, it is natural that one who is bereaved may experience significant distress during this season of “holiday cheer.”

Below are some suggested guidelines to consider as you, or as you help others, prepare for the holiday season while grieving:

  1. Plan ahead and don’t let any holiday “take you by surprise”.  While our emotions routinely surprise us and may even overwhelm us, it may be empowering to strategize how you will manage the day(s) ahead.
  2. Don’t do it alone!  Talk with your family or friends about how to make the day manageable and even meaningful.  If children are involved, it is especially important to include them in the conversations so that their thoughts and feelings are respected and validated.
  3. Take time to think about your unique rituals related to specific holidays, and whether you want to keep them the same, modify them, get rid of them and/or create new ones.  This is a fluid process, meaning you may do all of the above, and it will take many discussions!
  4. Take care of yourself!  This is extremely difficult for most of us, but it is especially challenging while one is grieving.  Create as conducive an environment as is possible so that you are eating, sleeping, and exercising in a healthy manner.
  5. Give yourself permission to “lose it” from time to time!  The idea of “good enough” can be very helpful.  Try to focus on the steps rather than simply the outcome.
  6. BREATHE DEEPLY AND SLOWLY… allowing yourself to get through moment to moment if that’s what you need.

Abundance from Scarcity

By Sunil Arora

We often live our lives consumed more with the things we don’t have - scarcity - instead of appreciating everything that wonderfully surrounds us - abundance. The shift from a scarcity to abundance mindset typically occurs as a result of an impactful but ephemeral experience such as a transformative event in life or a travel experience that connects you to a different culture or existence. The increasing popularity and discussion around meditation and mindfulness are part of a needed movement to understand how to effectuate this shift on a regular basis in the course of our daily lives. Something that is not typically considered, however, is the possibility of turning scarcity into abundance. How can you take something that you don’t have and turn it into an appreciation of abundance? Experience Camps answer this challenging question in a beautiful way.

Experience Camps bring together kids who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling. The scarcity is real and it is deeply painful. These kids have to contextualize death at entirely too young of an age and navigate their lives without an integral part of their family while being surrounded by peers who do not have to deal with such a predicament. It would be understandable, if not expected, for these kids to focus on who and what they don’t have in their lives. But every year, hundreds of kids leave Experience Camps appreciating and celebrating the love, community, and support they have in abundance.

It serves as a wonderful example for us as adults who often think about wanting more - love, time, money, recognition, and many other things - when in reality we are immersed in abundance. Taking a difficult circumstance of loss that alternates between a dull ache and a sharp pain and turning it into something that constantly reminds you of what you still have is no easy task but Experience Camps make it happen. The resilience of the kids is combined with an appreciation for the duality of grief - it hurts but also binds those who share it - to create a truly special community.

The best part of all of this is that, for the kids, this all happens at camp while just being kids - laughing, playing, bonding, and competing their way through games, recreation, and carefree silliness. As counselors and staff, we go to Experience Camps to guide and help the kids with a missing part of their lives, but we come away with a much bigger lesson on learning how to see and appreciate all the abundance that surrounds us in our daily lives.

The Great Unifier

In recent weeks, 3 police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge and another 5 in Dallas. Those 8 officers left behind 11 children in total. According to the Washington Post, 533 people have been killed by police in 2016, most of whom were armed and dangerous, some of whom were not. For some reason, the press doesn't report on which of those victims had children, but let's assume that at least a handful did.  On the surface, it may seem the children of those two groups are on different sides of a great big wall that divides right from wrong or black from white.  In reality, all of those children have joined a club that makes them more similar than different in the most important way that matters to them right now. Each of those children has lost a parent. Many people in their lives won't know what to say or do to make it better. Most of them will feel like nobody understands what they're going through.

Grief doesn't know black from white. It doesn't care who was holding the gun and who wasn't. It doesn't know wrong from right. Grief has no correlation to wealth, privilege, socioeconomics, religious beliefs, or political views. It is the great unifier. At Experience Camps, those in the club seek out the others who "get it". They look for similarities in their stories and experiences to feel normal in their own. They recognize differences with compassion and a desire to understand.

This year, we spent a lot of time in the off-season talking about Inclusion and Diversity. We have reflected on our own perceptions and beliefs and have broken down assumptions about individuals and groups of people that we didn't even know we were making. We realized a vision for Experience Camps that values difference and the need to respect, understand and embrace those differences. At camp, we will relay this vision to our campers in words and actions and they will know there is at least one place they can go where they are accepted and safe. Maybe some day the rest of the world will do the same.

A Day at Camp

by Josh Hahn...

No two days at Experience Camps are ever alike. They are a roller coaster of activity and emotion but always seems to strike the right balance; the highs and lows, the joy and pain, the tears and laughter.

Following the raising of both the American and Experience Camps flags, it’s on to a hearty breakfast and then instructionals. From tennis to waterskiing, rock-climbing to radio, baseball to hockey, instructionals provide an opportunity for campers to explore both their favorite activities and new ones, and receive organized instruction that leaves with them with improved skills and self-confidence. There are very few things as rewarding as the joy on a camper’s face when he or she waterskis for the first time, or hits a ball further than ever before.

Two periods of morning instructionals give way to arguably the most significant hour at camp, the sharing circle. This bunk activity provides the unique opportunity for our campers to share memories of their special person that died.  Some circles get very deep and emotional; others are light and filled with happy memories. Either way, it's an important time in the week for the campers to establish the bonds and openness with their bunkmates that are so important to their experience at camp.

Afternoons are reserved for College League, our highly spirited week-long competition. All the campers and staff are placed on a team, named after a college, and they compete in a wide array of both athletic, artistic, and mind-bending games. Points are awarded, team loyalties run deep, and cheering and enthusiasm overflow. By emphasizing sportsmanship and the spirit of competition, campers learn the value of teamwork, lifting up those who fall, and how to win and lose gracefully.

Some afternoons are reserved for non-college league activities and provide the ideal opportunity to explore the beauty of our natural surroundings…a boat trip on the lake, an oceanside hike, or a trip up one of the area’s amazing mountains to capture some majestic views. These moments of rare beauty and tranquility are ones that no camper could ever capture back home.

Food is a always a highlight of the week and dinner meals shine. Pasta bar, lobster rolls, steak and fries, homemade BBQ pork, lavish salad bars, vegetarian options and spectacular desserts like baked Alaska and whoopie pies. With a schedule of non-stop activity, dinner time can never come soon enough.

With the night still young, evening activities abound. Favorites include Steve Hirsch Night, or, in simpler terms, a big milkshake party. Game shows, talent shows, and the always popular Mr. or Ms. ExCamps competition round out the week. A further evening highlight is the trip to the local mini golf course. As if golf and ice cream are not good enough, this activity allows the youngest campers to be paired with their CIT (counselor-in-training) buddies. The buddy program provides our younger campers with someone looking out for them while our older campers have the opportunity to give back to those whose shoes they once stood in. It’s amazing to watch these relationships develop and to see how it benefits all the campers, young and old alike.

Most nights will typically end with a moment of quiet and reflection. Perhaps a campfire with a camper or staff speaker or song or an opportunity for the campers to write a quiet note to their special person and place it in the fire on the way back to the bunk. Unquestionably though, the week truly culminates with the final evening’s closing campfire. There are no words to properly set this scene or describe just how powerful it is. As the CITs line the entrance to the campsite, campers once inside have the opportunity to light a candle for their loved one and bravely speak to the entire camp, telling their story, sharing a memory, or thanking their friends. Tears flow, warm embraces follow, and love fills the air.

Despite the vast amount of activities, the amazing facilities, the incredible food, and the caring and enthusiastic staff, it’s friendships and connecting the invisible strings of a shared experience that bring our campers back each summer.  And, as we like to say, it’s what make a grieving child’s time at Experience Camps the “best week ever.”

 

My Kennybrook Experience

Each summer, a counselor or camper is asked to kick off a campfire by sharing their story or thoughts about their grief and time at camp. As you might imagine, it is an amazingly touching way to remember someone, share thoughts that are not often shared out loud, and model the openness and support that are the foundation of our experiences at camp. Below are the words that first-year counselor, Zach Bergman, read at the closing campfire at Kennybrook Experience last summer. 

A Letter Home

By Zach Bergman

I wake up everyday when all of a sudden the harsh reality sets in.  My best friend, my hero, my dad is dead.  It has been just under 4 months since my dad has died but yet these emotions of anger, sadness, confusion, frustration are all very palpable day in and day out.  I miss talking, laughing, playing, and learning from my dad.  I am scared to experience life without my dad.  He was the one I turned to for support, guidance and advice. I find myself asking how will put the next foot forward?  How will I make the right choice without his guidance?  How will I know the answers to my questions without him there?

I, like many of you, thought “I am okay”, “I will get through this”, “ I don’t need anyone’s help”. But then I came to Kennybrook Experience.  I, too, was scared and apprehensive about coming. But then I met the amazing staff.  I participated in circle time with a bunch of my peers who I didn’t know.  I was able to open up to a bunch of people who I have only known for a few hours.  I was telling them things I wouldn’t tell some of my closest friends.  I am not entirely sure what drove me to do this but I think it had something to do with the "magic".  That magic made me feel at ease and made me feel comfortable.  I was not even here for 8 hours but I know this place was special. The moment the kids stepped off the bus headed to the basketball court I knew I was in the right place.  I felt excitement, nervousness, but mostly eagerness to get the week going.  The energy, the enthusiasm, and the excitement of camp brought me right back to my element.  I was having fun and living like a kid.  The outside world didn’t matter.  I forgot about work, I forgot about my problems, but most of all I forgot about the loss I was feeling.  Then circle time ensued, a time where 4 counselors, 8 campers, and 1 clinician had a safe space.  A space where we can let all our emotions out and feel them together as one cabin.  To hear every single one of my campers share a piece of their story was not only touching but it was also reassuring.  I was reassured that there are others like me going through the same thing I am going through.  I am not the only one dealing with these emotions and feelings that I am currently feeling.  Shortly after circle time concluded the kids were back laughing, playing and having fun and putting our discussions we just had on the back burner and forgetting the stresses of the outside world.   To me, that balance is like no other.  No other place are you able to empathize with your brothers and then five minutes later laugh over something silly.  I need that balance. With such sadness I need happiness.  I have truly found that perfect balance at KenEx.

I look out at you 40 kids and am absolutely amazed.  I was lucky enough to have my father for 24 years of my life.  He has given me the tools to succeed in life.  He taught me how to be a man, how to respect people, and how to be kind.  While I was fortunate enough to have my dad to teach me and to mold me into the man I am, many of you don’t have that figure in your life to teach you. Yet so many of you have those tools: you are so kind, respectful, and amazing,  I commend each and every one of you.  I wanted to come to camp and teach kids how to better themselves but I think the opposite has unfolded.  You guys taught me about myself.  You have taught me how to open up, how to be a better person, and how to open back my heart to love again.  While no one can take the place of my dad I have found ways to use that part of my heart again and that void is filled by all of you.  

Often times I don’t like talking about my father’s death.  It is uncomfortable and people don’t get it. I have a found a safe place here where people do get it.  A place where I can talk about things, a place where I can cry and have 50 other people picking me up and comforting me.  Religion, race, background all go out the window and we stand here connected. We are all connected by a loss, a loss none of us wish we had.  However, this loss has brought us here. This loss has connected every single one of us, and for that I am thankful.  I have learned so much about all of you.  Your willingness to talk and share is a gift I encourage all of you to keep.  Thank you for giving me the strength I have been yearning for since my dad died.  With darkness comes light.  Thank you for everyone who has made this camp possible.