From Selfless for Scott to Experience Camps...

There is no combination of words that can accurately describe the way in which Experience camps has changed my life. Two and a half years ago, my 21-year-old brother, Scott, suddenly and shockingly lost his life. Heartbroken and paralyzed, my family began the journey of rebuilding our life- a life after Scott. Scott quickly became known as the most selfless and genuine individual. My parents and I started a movement called Selfless for Scott, putting on community volunteer events and encouraging our family and friends to participate in selfless acts of kindness. While channeling what it was like to be more like Scott and think selflessly, I began recognizing my desire to help others in need. I felt particularly strong about helping others who had been through a devastating loss like I had. I figured that if I had to go through this, the one positive could be that I'm able to help others navigate the pain I've come to understand too well. 

One night I was scrolling on Facebook and came upon a quote posted by Modern Loss. Modern Loss defines themselves as a group of people, mostly in their 20s-40s grappling with and connecting over the complex, gut wrenching, illuminating, rest-of-lifelong and hilarious sh*t we all know formally and more politely as "living with loss". It's a closed group on Facebook and you have to write to them explaining why you want to join. I immediately joined the group and each night would scroll through reading posts by others. One day I was reading an article that mentioned a couple of the most helpful things for those grieving a significant loss. Experience Camps was on the list. I was curious about it, so I started researching. As soon as I started, I was hooked. It combines so many of the most important to me; helping others dealing with grief, overnight camp, new experiences, bonding, and other people who "get it."

The moment I arrived to Experience Camps Maine (SomEx) I felt at home. I was lucky enough to meet 40 spirited, strong, optimistic, incredible campers and 20+ co-counselors that share in the same heartbreaking experience that I do. They've shown me what it truly means to be resilient and become the best version of myself. Together we laughed, cried, sat in our sadness, roasted s'mores, participated in epic relay races and minute to win it challenges, and celebrated the life of the person or people that have died. The Experience Camps community has given me the strength to share my story and continue to build a life focused on helping others. I feel beyond lucky to have met a group of people who have not only experienced this kind of devastating loss of a parent or sibling but have become stronger because of it. 

One of my most memorable camp moments was the SomEx talent show. One of my campers decided she didn't want to participate with the rest of our cabin while they performed a hand-clapping routine we'd been practicing during meals. I told her she, of course, did not have to perform. I had felt particularly connected to this camper since we both lost our loved one in the same way. She came to me often throughout the week when she needed to be comforted or needed an extra push to do something out of her comfort zone. Half way through the talent show she came up to me and asked if she could perform, not only with our cabin but an act of her own. Perplexed but excited I told the talent show staff that she wanted to add her act to the lineup. She got up on stage all by herself and sang the song Rise Up by Rhianna. I don't know how to explain the immense pride and happiness I felt during those 3 minutes. She went from not wanting to go up on stage at all to going up by herself and singing a song about perseverance and a reminder to just stand up and take the next step. These are the kind of transformations that Experience Camps help create. Being surrounded by a room of people who "get it" gave my camper the courage to express her grief and sadness in a profound way, encouraging everyone to persevere through the tough times. 

Over the past couple months my family has been selling donation cards displaying Scott's artwork on the front with all proceeds to benefit Experience Camps. We have raised $11,200 which will send 11 different kids to camp this summer. We are completely blown away by the success of the donation cards. There is no place I would rather donate the money. Thank you thank you thank you to Experience Camps for giving me newfound friends, strength, and resilience. I am eternally grateful and can't wait to continue making memories each summer at camp.

What Happens When The Death Anniversary Disappears From The Calendar?

I boarded a flight to Mumbai that would be taking off on January 9th at 8:20pm. If we do the math, between the 15 hour flight and the 10.5 hour time difference I would be landing on January 11th around the 9pm hour.

For the first time in the last 16 years of my life, I wouldn’t have the chance — the responsibility? — to watch the clock on January 10th. My mom’s death anniversary was effectively the day I was “losing” by traveling to India. The irony wasn’t lost on me and neither was how easily I was moving through it.

I sat down in the middle seat, sandwiched between my boyfriend and a wonderful older woman who decided I was the person she wanted to talk to. Her chatter about the boarding process for the flight slowly turned into telling me that this was a noteworthy trip for her. This was her first time traveling back to India without her husband, who had passed a year ago.

I remember that first year like it was yesterday, even though it was anything but. I told her it’d been 16 years for me — 16 years of firsts, 16 years of noticing, but the first when I could make my mom’s death anniversary anything I wanted to.

I’d grown accustomed to writing an essay every year. I’d grown accustomed to commemorating her death the way some do birthdays. This year was helping me figure out whether I just did it because I’d grown accustomed to it or because I just didn’t know what else to do in its place. I’ve learned that death anniversaries are noticed because it justifies the pain we feel on other days that don’t have a minute by minute account of when they were and when they stopped being. I at least made a habit of publicly nudging the world in to remembering that she had died because I wanted the space on other days to feel sad that she wasn’t alive.

But, here’s the thing, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to remember her on my own terms and without the emotional annihilation that comes with a death anniversary. I still shared an Instagram post about the anniversary, but I got the chance to do it with a smiling picture of me instead of looping back to one of the only pictures I have of us.

Some will say that time is to thank for my shift in perspective, but I don’t think that’s true. I credit grief and how we’ve grown up together. It’s been my longest relationship and my greatest teacher on giving myself permission to feel without judging the feelings. Too often there’s a societal pressure that certain days should be sad — I think death anniversaries top that list. I liked being able to redefine that list for myself this year. Yes, I was nostalgic and missed her, but I was also so comforted by the happier memories of her. Usually I’d spend so much of January 10th thinking of all the sad that I’d be too emotionally drained at the end of it to remember any of the good, I like that getting to skip the day gave me time back to do more of the good kind of remembering.

Vivian is the Founder of toodamnyoung.com, a community and resource for teens and young adults who have lost someone they love. You can find her writing about all things mental health + grief on her instagram — @vivnunez. 

Businesses giving back

Silver Mirror is a facial bar in the heart of New York City that helps their clients achieve healthy, beautiful skin, while also focusing on charitable work. Every season, Silver Mirror comes up with a charity-focused facial, and this year, Experience Camps made its debut on the menu!

Owners Matt and Cindy heard about Experience Camps from their good friend Aron Weingard. Aron is a vocal evangelist for Experience Camps and its incredible mission, and they quickly decided that it was a perfect fit for the charity facial.  

When Matt and Cindy were starting Silver Mirror, they wanted to incorporate social causes into their business.  “We believe it's important for businesses to be involved in both local and international social causes when possible,” Matt said. “We rotated different social causes from Women's World Banking to City Year when we began the program.  For the last year, we have been dedicating our Seasonal facial program to Experience Camps.”

Depending on the season, the facial takes on a different name for what it’s helping accomplish with your skin. “The facial is specifically designed to help deal with the brutal weather elements we experience in New York City, whether it be sweltering summers or frigid winters.”

A portion of the proceeds of each facial goes to Experience Camps. “We do our best to be vocal about Experience Camps, whether the organization is mentioned on our menus, through social media or in print materials.”

Thank you Silver Mirror for your support of Experience Camps!

ExCamps is truly designed to foster healing...

In 2012, the year my mother died from ovarian cancer, I began searching for opportunities to honor her legacy. She was a preschool teacher in Los Angeles, California and found multiple  ways to impact the lives of her students.

I learned about Experience Camps (ExCamps) from a former college friend, Karis Ingram, who was a volunteer in 2017 for California Experience (CalEx) Girls camp. As Karis shared her camp experience I realized that volunteering would not only allow me to give back to those struggling with similar loss experiences, but also aid me on my journey in remembering my mother.

As a first time volunteer I was a bit nervous. The ExCamps and clinical staff provided valuable webinars on camper interaction, safety, cultural diversity, grief and more. These tools helped me feel prepared. From the time I landed in California to the moment camp was over I never felt more support and welcomed by staff and the other volunteers.

There were many moments during CalEx that resonated; my fondest memory was being a judge for the fashion show during college league events. Four counselors and myself dressed up in ridiculous costumes and took on various fashion personalities to judge the girls fashion show. Under time constraints campers created outfits from ordinary supplies: colored tissue paper, foil, beads, feathers, rope, ribbon etc. and dressed the Leaders in Training (L.I.T.s) girls. Campers really showed off their creativity and fashion expertise. It was at this event where I saw the joy, teamwork, and lasting connections that Experience Camps forms for campers and staff.

Every activity at camp developed a communal sense of support. It was common to spend the majority of the day in laughter and/or song with the girls in my bunk. In those moments where tears ran freely, the level of understanding and care campers showed to one another, no matter the age difference, was awe-inspiring.  From my experience, ExCamps, is truly designed to foster healing and allow the kids to be kids. Honestly, "It's the best week of the year".

I did not want the week to end, so to keep the momentum I joined the ExCamps Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Task Force. This task force aims increase the level of diversity and inclusion, think racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, geographic, sexual orientation, gender identity, or literally any other type of diversity you can imagine. As a volunteer on D&I task force I am happy to provide my incite and socioeconomic background to our discussions. Being apart of the task force is allowing me to impact the lives of others in the manner in which my mother did. I am grateful for the opportunity to support children in their grief process as well as create lasting memories. I look forward to CalEx Girls Camp this summer.

Experience Camps is part of our village...

Devon Coyle at first seems quiet. She is a very studious and kind hearted child. She plays softball, basketball, and volleyball, and is an amazing big sister to Gianna, who is only 17 months younger.

In 2017, When Devon was 11 and Giana was 9, their dad, David, died suddenly of an undetected heart condition while driving with Gianna and his wife, Lynne.

After that tragic and terrifying day, Devon and her family make sure that they keep his memory alive through pictures, discussions, and now by attending Experience Camps. Devon and her sister first came to camp after her mom read about it in Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Option B."

Devon came back from camp last summer raving about her experience and the friends that she made. She finally found a place where she felt normal and was not treated differently because of what she'd been through.

"Camp is a huge lifeline for my girls."

Devon is not afraid to be herself. She is a genuine good soul who would go out of her way to help others. She has a great deal of patience and respect for others. These traits shone brightly during her week at camp and allowed her to bond with the other girls in a truly special way.

Grief isn't always easy. "I wish people knew how painful it is for me and my girls," says Devon's mom, "I still have a hard time dealing with it. I wish people would talk about my husband instead of avoiding the subject of him." Luckily, what her girls take away from camp makes the day to day a little easier.

"Experience Camps is part of our village. It is a relief for me that my children can go to a place where they feel like they belong."

From CalEx Volunteer to Town Trustee...

Laura Skladzinski was a first time CalEx volunteer in 2018. She lives in Boulder, CO and is a management consultant for PWC. She was recently elected as town trustee for Superior, CO.

Every year for the holidays Laura's former colleague Justine Lelchuk (a current ExCamps Board Member) puts out a newsletter where she promotes Experience Camps. Each time, Laura read the words "Best Week Ever" and felt intrigued. This year, one of Laura's best friend's mother died, and Laura decided attending Experience Camps would be the perfect way to honor her friend and get a better grasp on how to support her through one of the hardest times in her life.  

Laura loved every minute of camp. She especially loved how everyone came together to make ExCamps a place of understanding for the kids. She was able to see a little bit of what her best friend had gone through, and that helped give her a better understanding on how she could be there for her when she got back home. Laura felt especially moved by the Bill of Rights grief activity. This activity showed her all the different things that grief is and can be - and how everyone can support that journey.

"From the very beginning I knew that ExCamps was a powerful place," Laura said. "It's such a diverse group of campers who all have had such different experiences - but share a connection that enables them to know exactly what each one might be feeling."

It was clear to Laura that these connections and memories spanned not only the week at camp, but also throughout the year.

"At the closing night bonfire, one of the campers said that last year her and her bunk mates exchanged phone numbers and started a group text. From the day they left camp they had a countdown for every day until the following year. It really made me realize what a special place had been created."

This year, Laura ran for Town Trustee in Superior, Colorado. Laura mentioned that she was constantly inspired by camp throughout her time on the campaign trail.

"The song THIS IS ME that I learned about at camp - that was something that I probably listened to 10 times a day when I was going through the campaign. I kept thinking about that and various lyrics. It really meant a lot to me. Campaigning is very stressful, but that song always makes me thinks of my strong campers and gives me hope."

Laura loved camp so much and can't wait for next year in our new camp in Michigan, MidwEx! "I'm so grateful that I get to help at the first year of this camp, and start creating new memories for so many kids!

Loss is the Common Denominator

Will Carradero is a dynamic kid. He's a perfect combination of an introvert and an extrovert. After his father died, his mom Eligia was looking for different ways for Will to find support. She knew that her son's grief journey would be a very long process, but one that she would always help him navigate.

Because of Will's natural ability to be a part of groups, she signed him up for Experience Camps. She knew that even though grief is a different experience for everyone, loss is the common denominator.

Eligia has noticed great changes in her son since returning from camp. "Will is more expressive with his feelings. He came back with a sense of relief and less anguish with the loss of his father. Also, he talks about camp all the time!"

Just like many of our campers, Will wishes that camp could be two weeks long instead of one week! Will felt safe in our community and was grateful to be able to connect with kids who had been through similar situations in their lives.

Will has fallen in love with Experience Camps and was particularly proud of himself that he didn't feel homesick or feel the need to be on his electronics. Go Will!

He is already counting down the days until next summer!

Grief and Gratitude

At Experience Camps, we often talk about the ying and yang of grief. It’s the idea that there can be two opposing forces, yet they can exist in balance. For instance, sometimes you can feel both joy and sadness, guilt and relief…or even GRATITUDE and GRIEF.

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that can bring a lot of emotions to the surface for grieving families. There can be inner conflict with the idea of giving thanks when you’re feeling robbed of the time you were meant to have with someone who has died. Many children and adults are left wondering, is it ok to feel grateful for what you have when you have lost so much? We say yes. Yes it is.

Each summer at the final campfire, as kids line up one after one to light a candle and share a bit of their story, the theme of gratitude is quick to emerge. Some campers will say, “I wish my dad hadn’t died…but if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten to come to camp and meet all of you”. In those moments, as so often happens, the kids become our greatest teachers, reminding us all of the balance that can be found when given the right space to share and reflect. Appreciation is shown for their new friendships, the activities they get to try, their counselors and mentors, and even the food. Even with all that has happened, they are grateful.

It is in this spirit that we give thanks to all of the people that make up the ExCamps family and the forces that brought us together. Sure, it’s a club that nobody wants to belong to, but we sure are grateful for each and every person that makes it what it is. Happy Thanksgiving.

Hunter Holds His Head High

Hunter has always struggled with self confidence - he has trouble standing up for himself and was pretty adamant about not going to camp when his mom suggested it. So imagine his mom, Jodi's, surprise when the first words out of his mouth when she picked him up from camp were "I'm definitely coming back next year!"


Jodi has always been a strong advocate for Hunter, especially after his dad died of Pancreatic Cancer when Hunter was just 10 months old. She tried to find resources for them both but realized that there wasn't much out th ere for kids who were grieving the loss of a loved one. Taking matters into her own hands, she hired a 12-year old boy who had also lost his dad to be Hunter's first babysitter. This was the start of a support network for him, but she knew that he needed more.  


She found Experience Camps through an online search and knew immediately that it was the place for Hunter. He often worries that his own sadness about his dad will upset his mom, but ExCamps gives him a place to really explore his feelings without having to worry about anyone else. At home, Jodi was also comforted knowing that Hunter was safe and supported by caring volunteers and peers at camp.


Hunter encountered a lot of stories of loss during his time at camp, which brought out some new emotions for him - emotions that hadn't been so close to the surface before. That openness and sharing allowed him to deal with his own feelings which otherwise may have stayed suppressed or boiled over with negative outcomes over time. For Hunter, his time at ExCamps began the important process of coping and healing that has continued even after camp.


When he got home this summer, Hunter walked with his head held high, something he hadn't done before.  "He left home a little boy and came back a young man." And while it's hard to compete with the other most magical place on earth, to Hunter and Jodi, camp is "better than a trip to Disney Land!"

Why I (really, really) wanted to work at ExCamps...

Growing up, my brother and I were your typical siblings. We communicated through punches, shoving, yelling, and eventually one of us getting in trouble (usually me, the ole’ “you’re older, you should know better,” routine). But, something was different when late June rolled around. We knew we were about to embark on our favorite 7.5 weeks of the year. The 7.5 weeks where we were on our own without our parents, thrust into a universe where our home life was a distant memory, except for one thing, we had each other.

Every night before the first day of camp we rolled out the cot from my closet, set the bed next to mine, and had our once a year “sleepover.” This was a tradition we had set since 1998 (my first year of camp - before Jordan even started attending camp himself). Jordan was always interested in camp. He started 3 years after I did (you had to be at least 8 to go, so his eager 5 year old self wasn’t getting in), but interrogated me constantly throughout the year about what happened in those fairytale spaces.

When the cot was set, we popped in the VHS of the camp video from the year before, and watched until we accidentally drifted off to sleep. We never made it through the full 3 hour video, to our dismay. We’d wake up in the morning new people, and we knew it. We had taken off the armor of the winter months, and shed our skin like butterflies, morphing into our camp selves.

Camp was the place where we escaped all that was home life, and became a more honest version of ourselves. For Jordan and I, it was almost like an alternate universe role play. It was the place where we stepped out of the persona of the fighting siblings, and stepped into our greatest performance, the role of sibling comrades, and the only ones who knew exactly how the last 10 months had been in our lives.

As the buses departed from the Macy’s parking lot, we waved to our parents (sometimes ran so quickly on the bus that we didn’t even say goodbye to them), and were ushered off into our happy place.

We had arrived. I rocked back in forth in my Crazy Creek chair at the first all-camp gathering excitingly waiting for some of the directors to take the stage. The energy in the room was palpable. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Jordan, asking if he could sit in my lap. I knew I was home.

Years later in 2012, my brother died by suicide. It was the hardest thing I've ever dealt with, and for a while I was lost trying to figure out how I would make sure he was with me every day, though he wasn't physically with me anymore.

In 2017, I was talking to one of my best friends and she recommenced I look into Experience Camps, as she knew camp had always been an important piece of me, and especially as it relates to the way I remember my brother. I volunteered in 2018 at CalEx, and knew I had found my people, my place, and the perfect way to not only help keep Jordan's memory alive, but to also pay it forward.

Camp provides so much for so many children, and especially those who have experienced trauma, loss, or any other type of hardship. I’m so unbelievably grateful to be embarking on my newest adventure, as the National Program Manager of Experience Camps.

This job is going to let me morph into my camp self for good, and I plan to carry my sibling comrade with me every step of the way.

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.