Family

“Family. Family. Oh BluEx can’t you see. We’re all here together, family.” That’s the song that’s been stuck in my head since I left BluEx about 2 weeks ago. It’s a rendition of “Let It Be” that the BluEx campers and volunteers made up to perform on the last night of camp. I’ve heard countless songs made up at camp, but this one really hit home.

 Family

The dictionary offers up 8 different definitions of the word, but none come even close to describing what I’ve seen built at Experience Camps.

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I’ve now been to 3 of our Experience Camps programs, and each one starts off the same way. Busloads of grieving kids arrive at camp feeling uncertain, maybe alone and isolated, and some of them not wanting to be there at all. The bus doors open, and boom, the sound of cheering volunteers pours in. One by one, the kids step out, unsure of what the next 6 days will hold, but just like that, the transformation from strangers to family begins.

 From the opening sharing circle to closing campfire, and everything in between, our campers tap into the deepest parts of themselves — parts that have been hurt the most in their short lives. It happens in the grief activities, but also on a walk to the pool, during a game of kickball, or over a meal. It's the omnipresent understanding that no matter who you're next to, you are not alone, and you are free to talk about the things, and the people, that the world so often tells you not to bring up. Our campers not only share their own stories, but showcase compassion, understanding, and empathy towards their cabin mates and new friends. It’s something quite remarkable to witness.

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When you let other people into the parts of you that hurt the most, the bonds that form can last a lifetime. As one of our campers put it last week at CalEx, “I learned sisterhood doesn’t take years to form, it can happen in just one week.”

We know that the pain will always exist inside of our campers (and often, our volunteers and clinicians), but if you can find a group — a family — of people that can help carry the hurt with you, you can maybe, quite possibly, move through this world a little lighter.

That, to me, is the Experience Camps magic.

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What's the Deal with College League?

If you survey our campers on what their favorite activity at camp is (and we have), 9 out of 10 will say College League. It is loud, high-energy, competitive and a great deal of fun. But underneath the face paint and psych moves, there’s much more to it.

For those that are new to this concept, College League is a week-long competition between 2 or 4 teams (depending on the size of the camp), named after colleges and lead by a “Dean” who is a volunteer. Most afternoons, teams compete in different activities for points that are tallied up to declare a winner at the end of the week. It’s kind of a big deal.

Soon after the campers arrive at camp, they are gathered together for the “College League break”. This looks a little different each year and at each camp, but it’s essentially when each camper and volunteer is called out onto his or her team for the week. This usually involves costumes, loud music, a lot of cheering, and sometimes a backflip. The Deans make their surprise entrances in all sorts of creative ways. One year, a Dean was lowered down through a doorway on a forklift.

Throughout the week, College League is the vehicle for a lot of good stuff. The teams are made up of all ages, so younger campers are able to look up to the older campers, and older campers are able to model the values of the team as leaders. Campers are encouraged to show sportsmanship, teamwork, and support for their team mates. They are taught to win with humility and lose with grace. They are a family within the bigger family of camp. They belong to something and they are made to feel like an important member of the team.

The origins of College League go back to the early years of Camp Manitou, where our original program began and from which we formed most of our traditions. I’ve asked around in the years since we started to see if anyone has a clear explanation of how the college element was woven into this summer-long competition. So far, nobody really knows. But here’s how I see it…

To me, the "college" part of College League is about being aspirational. When I was growing up, I visited my mom’s alma mater for homecoming events. We talked about college regularly in our house. It was always assumed I’d go to college and the same was true for every one of my friends. For many of our campers and a large part of our country, that's not the case. For all of our campers, I see College League as a seed of aspiration. It’s a small way of saying that “college” can be part of their vocabulary, where it might not have been before. At camp, everyone gets to be part of a college team. That won’t necessarily be the path for every camper, but if we can play a small part in breaking down the barrier to opportunity for someone, I think that’s pretty great.

At the end of the day, College League is another way to inspire each person to be their best self. And quite possibly lose their voice in the process.


Camper Spotlight on Sandy

Sandina (Sandy), is an outgoing 10 year old who loves to makes friends. Alongside her father Fernando and her brother Chris, Sandy witnessed her mother's battle with cancer. On March 31, 2015, Sandy's mother passed away.

After Sandy's mom Carla had passed, Sandy and her brother went to live with their father. Sandyand her brother had to relocate to a new school and a new city, once again being separated from people close to them. "After Carla died, Sandy became very fearful of losing another parent. Whenever Sandy saw other kids being taken to school by their mothers, she would ask why she didn't have one," Fernando said.

Sandy's family was introduced to Experience Camps through their support group, Imagine. Now through camp, Sandy sees that she is not alone. She is not isolated in her grief. After camp, when Sandy and her brother came home, Sandy's father Fernando tells us, "I did not get a 'hello I missed you,' but rather an emphatic, 'CAN WE COME BACK NEXT YEAR?'"

Although faced with adversity, Sandy has excelled in school, making honor roll every marking period for the past 3 years. She also loves participating on her cheer team. Sandy, along with her teammates, won nationals at Disney and because of her scholastic success is recognized as an All-American Scholar.

"Even though Sandy and her brother miss their mother every day, it is a blessing that they are able to share their experience with their camp friends and see that they are not alone."

The [Not So] Calm Before the Storm

In 7 days, 19 hours, 2 minutes, and 13 seconds (if you’re reading this now, that number has certainly changed), I’ll be embarking on a 5-week journey to each and every Experience Camps program: Georgia, California, Pennsylvania, Maine and Michigan.

Since October 22, 2018, I have been the National Program Manager of Experience Camps. A job that I can’t even call a job, because it’s so much more than that. It’s a passion, a community, a team, a place where I feel fulfilled every single day.

Over the last 9 months I have welcomed in new volunteers, strategized for future growth, coordinated with amazing directors, exported spreadsheets, created social media content, planned events, and so much more. But in 7 days, 18 hours, 55 minutes, and 48 seconds, those tasks will turn into camp. And not just any camp. A camp full of 800 grieving kids who wait all year to be with people who just get it.

There’s Zander, whose father died of sudden illness. There’s Jake, whose mother died of breast cancer. There’s Isabel, whose father died of a heart attack. Just to name a few. Each and every camper comes in with their own individual story, but once they get to camp, they know that they’re not in this alone.

Don’t get me wrong. Our camps aren’t sad places. It’s summer camp, and it’s oh so fun. There’s milkshake making, and talent shows, and tug-o-war, and face paint, and campfires, and glitter, and high-fiving, and hugs, and at the end of the day, we go to bed smiling, ready to conquer the next day, and feeling a little less alone in our grief.

When our campers and volunteers sign up for camp, we tell them to get ready for the “best week ever,” and there is so much truth to that slogan. Camp, and the people in it, provides so much support, compassion, love, and understanding through the stuff that makes us cry, AND the stuff that makes us laugh uncontrollably (like someone getting pegged with an oily dodgeball during College League). It’s an experience you will never forget, and why so many people come back year after year.

In 7 days, 18 hours, 31 minutes, and 10 seconds, I’ll embark on the journey of a lifetime. I’ll meet almost 1300 people, give out almost 1300 hugs (if you’re a hugger!), and listen to the stories of 1300 individuals who come to camp with one to tell.

Let’s get this thing started.

Camper Spotlight on Lily

Lily is an amazing camper who is known for her compassion, and how she goes out of her way to help other people. Lily loves water-sports and her family. Lily experienced the death of her sister, who she was extremely close to. Since the death, Lily has become a big family girl, always trying to find ways to get the family together.

One night, Lily's mom was Googling grief resources for Lily and found Experience Camps. "As I was searching, it never dawned on me that grief camp could be free. It's so beautiful to see all of the people that feel it in their hearts to donate to Experience Camps. That's something that is SO special. It's amazing."

Lily loves attending Experience Camps! Lily even spoke at an Experience Camps fundraiser in Miami, where she was psyched to share her story with everyone in the room.

This past summer was Lily's third year. Lily constantly talks about how nice it is to go to camp and be able to share her personal experience with people. She loves that you don't have to over-explain, everyone already gets it.

Experience Camps has made an everlasting impact on Lily. "The Experience Camps community has been a constant source of support and light for us. Our family is forever grateful."

Lily LOVES going to Experience Camps and can't wait to return in 2019.

A-1 Self Storage Gives Back

What do storage units, Mother Teresa, and Experience Camps have in common? They’ve all been impacted by the work of the Caster Family Foundation. Terrence Caster's 60 year career in the real estate development industry includes industrial, residential, retail, and beginning in 1983, self storage. To this day, if you’re driving in California, you’re bound to see a blue and orange A-1 Self Storage sign.

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The Casters are a family of philanthropists dedicated to serving communities across the country. With the success of the storage business, the family created the Caster Family Foundation. “As a business it’s easy to grow quickly and get caught up in what it could be. It takes a lot of self acceptance to say I have enough,” says Elise Caster, granddaughter of Terrence Caster. "My grandparents knew what enough was early on and were intentional about investing not just in the growth of their business but in making the world a better place along the way."

The Caster family, local to San Diego, focused on tangible issues that would affect the communities closest to them. In 1998 they were introduced to Mother Teresa and began a working relationship supporting her Mexico ministry. Together they built an orphanage and shelter for the homeless of Tijuana. “I was a child when we went down to Mexico to meet with Mother Teresa. It really left such an impact on our family. Especially as children, being taught from such a young age that philanthropy and giving matters.”

Year after year the Casters utilize their foundation to give out grants to charitable organizations. The family is very much into practical giving - clothes, food, etc, but we also now know how important it is to focus on the whole person. Mental health is so important. We want to find organizations that lead with the heart, focus on emotions, mental well-being, and mindfulness.” said Elise, who now works in the family business and is a junior member at the Caster Family Foundation.

Mr. and Mrs. Caster

Mr. and Mrs. Caster

Elise first heard about Experience Camps through Sunil Arora, a career coach and Experience Camps board member. Moved by the mission, she knew that this was an organization that clearly lead with the heart, and was focused on making space for kids to share and be themselves. She knew she wanted to share Experience Camps with her grandmother, Barbara.

"Experience Camps was the last grant that I spoke to my grandmother about before she died this past August. Discussing an organization that focuses on the loving action of protecting and caring for the emotional and spiritual needs of children challenged us both to talk about emotion in a way we hadn't before. I'll call it the Experience Camp compound affect. The camp will no doubt inspire countless others to have deeper conversations about the importance of understand emotion at every age. I will always be grateful for the meaningful conversation my exposure to the camp inspired."  

June is for Jordan

For most people, June is the month that kicks off summer. That might look like some beach time, a family vacation, or even summer Fridays if you’re lucky. But for me, it’s the month that my brother Jordan died, and that is just all-encompassing. June, oh June. Why do you always come around so quickly?

I’m coming up on my 7th June without my brother, and you’d think it would get easier, but nope, it still hits like a bag of bricks. So, in my world, June always gets some extra self care lovin’. Whether that’s some good ol’ couch and TV time (GOT is my current binge), Crossfit, meetings with my Dinner Party table (https://www.thedinnerparty.org/), or dancing like nobody's watching (you should see my moves, they’re pretty awesome), I make time for me. But more importantly, I put extra emphasis on making time for Jordan.

Self care time includes looking at old photos of us <3

Self care time includes looking at old photos of us <3

I wish I could say that my brother’s death was clean and easy and we all sat around holding hands during his final breath, but alas it was not. It was hard, and complicated, so complicated. And messy. And still to this day there are so many unanswered questions. Suicide is a really hard topic that is too often met with whispers or judgement. That’s why, for 3 years in a row, I have participated in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) Overnight Walk (https://www.theovernight.org/).

The Overnight Walk is a 16 mile walk through the night with a community of people who make you feel safe and cared-for, because they know all too well the complicated grief that comes with suicide.

As we walked, we watched as the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge, and I found myself imagining everything that could have been. I then started laughing because I could only think about how much my brother would have made fun of me for being so solemn in that moment. I could hear his voice in my head, “Jeez, Jesse, at least play some music, you’re gonna be here for a while!” So as I turned up the tunes on my phone, struck up conversations with other participants, and shared stories about my brother, I finished those 16 miles with him at my metaphorical side.

That sunset was pretty epic.

That sunset was pretty epic.

Everything about grief can feel so crushing, like someone sitting on your chest, but there have been so many resources, events, and communities who have made it all a little more bearable. Will it get easier? Maybe. Will it always feel like this? Probably. Who knows what the future holds, but for now, you can find me icing my calves, finishing my last couple of Game of Thrones episodes and spending an extra few moments every day thinking about the brother I lost, and the person I’ve become because of it.

Volunteer Spotlight on Marty

Marty has been a volunteer since 2016, and is looking forward to returning to our California (CalEx) camp for summer 2019. Thank you Marty for always making everyone smile, and for your infectious, amazing energy. 


I can still remember my first day of CalEx Camp like it was yesterday.  As I drove into the parking lot I was terrified and had no idea what to expect.  The friend who had got me involved ended up having to drop out last minute due to work, so I didn't know a single soul.  I had flashbacks to the first day of school, nervous that everyone was already friends and that I would be the odd man out.  However, nothing could have been further from the truth as the group of volunteers and staff were some of the most welcoming and open hearted people I had ever met.

That first year I had a bunk of mostly new campers, eight 14-year-old girls to be exact. As you can guess, sitting around and opening up about their feelings was not high on their list.  During our first grief activity that day, my co-counselors and I did most of the talking, hoping to make the girls feel more comfortable. As the week went on the girls started to open up more and come out of their shells.

At the final bonfire at the end of the week the girls go up by bunks and can talk about what camp meant to them. It's completely optional, but most girls like to share.  My co-counselors and I didn't think the chance of anyone speaking from our bunk was high, though they had started to open up with us. Speaking in front of the entire camp seemed like it might be too daunting.  We were pleasantly surprised when the quietest girl in our bunk, someone who had traveled from the other side of the country and had never been to any kind of camp before, grabbed the mic and said how thankful she was for camp.  Like a proud bunk mama, I felt my heart swell with pride. I realized in that moment that this is the power of Experience Camps. It brings us all together and makes us feel a little less alone, and helps us find that courage that we didn't know we had.

I lost my father from a heart attack when I was 22 years old and at 30 I thought I had really dealt with it, but that week and those kids healed something in me that I had no idea still needed to be healed.  Through tears during circle time, to screaming at the top of my lungs during college league, to laughing til my stomach hurt with my bunk, to the impromptu dance parties, I felt myself change. Their strength and tenacity rubbed off and it's something I think about throughout the year when I take on any sort of new challenge.


I head back this summer for my 4th year at camp, and will be the Unit Leader for the Upper Camp.  I'm affectionately called Pool PartyMarty. It's the best! Seeing the same girls come back year after year and watching them grow into fierce, amazing, young women has made me one proud bunk mama.

Camper Spotlight: Brooke

Brooke is an amazing fourth grader who loves dance, theater, and reading pretty much anything she can get her hands on! She is kind, caring and compassionate. Brooke lives with her mom and her two idols, her siblings Dylan and Chloe.

Brooke was only four years old when her father died suddenly. Brooke's mom Jen is most proud of Brooke's resilience and helpful nature. "I was lucky to stumble across Experience Camps as I was looking for resources available to children who had suffered the loss of a primary caregiver. It was really something I knew my kids needed, a place to feel like they are not alone. ExCamps has been that place!"

Brooke was so excited leading up to camp; she was packing everything on the checklist to her suitcase! The night before camp, Brooke and her family were running some last minute errands, and she accidentally slammed her finger in the car door requiring an ER trip and lots of tears. Brooke's mom was overwhelmed by the quick response of the Experience Camps team. "We emailed and got a response right away! They said it would be no problem to accommodate the last-minute medical stuff for Brooke and the team handled it amazingly!"

Brooke came home gushing about all the amazing activities they had done and how she felt special when her team had won College League and jumped in the lake. Her counselors made sure she was part of the action while keeping her hand dry! She came home and talked about the friends she had made, the activities that were so awesome, and of course the food. She talked about how kind and helpful her counselors were. She also couldn't believe how cool the bunks were (considering she'd never been to a "camp" before, she had visions of bugs and gross, but was happy by bunks and showers).

Jen tells us, "One resource I really love that ExCamps provides is the ExCamps Caregivers Facebook page. This group provides great outlets and resources for families, it allows for the connection from the camps to carry over to the grown-ups too!"

Brooke and her family are grateful to Experience Camps and everybody in the community. "The ExCamps village has provided so much comfort to my family. My son and youngest daughter cannot imagine a summer without ExCamps, and my son as a LIT2 is already talking about how he plans to "give back" as a counselor someday to help other kids the way he was helped. And, Brooke benefited because she was able to venture outside her comfort zone and be independent."

"ExCamps is something I always share as such a positive in a dark time. It is a light at the end of a dark tunnel and I know my children are better because of it!"

Experience Camps was the foundation in letting my healing begin...

Dashaun attend Experience Camps from 2013-2016. Below, he shares his story of loss, camp, and finding hope and purpose.

My time at Experience Camps brings me back to a point in my life when I was in deep emotional pain because of the lose of my infant brother and loss of my Aunt, who was my permanent caretaker. Both of these tragic losses all happened in a span of two years. The pain ran so deep it shook me to my core, and felt like friends and school counselors just didn’t understand. That all changed one late summer day in August 2013 when I boarded a bus in Newton, Massachusetts headed to some camp in Maine where I did not know a soul. I was only 9 years old and all I remember from the bus ride is being really scared.

Once the bus pulled up to camp, I saw staff and campers giving high fives and hugging. I immediately felt safe and accepted and thought to myself that this may just be a whole lot of fun. The summers I spent at Experience Camps were critical to helping me grieve, cope and to my mental health. The one week at camp was both the most emotionally painful and the most fun. All the activities that were offered often took my mind off the real reason I was there.

My toughest moments at camp were the nightly fires where I had to write something down and throw it in the fire. That’s when my grief really came front and center and I knew I had to face it.  My favorite activity was the hike up the mountain where I got to write messages and release balloons to our loved ones.

Today I am 15 years old and a Freshman in high school with a whole lot of friends. I was accepted to technical high school because I have an interest in drawing and design. In December 2018, I picked my shop as Design Visual and Technical design, I am doing well academically. I only missed High Honor roll by one class! I now spend part of my summer at summer day camp, and this coming summer (2019), I will be a LIT. The second half of the summer for the last 4 years I have spent away at overnight camp.

Through all the coping strategies and bunk therapy at Experience Camps, I was able to bring myself to a place in my life where I do not view myself as victim anymore, but a survivor of grief. In my heart I feel if I had not spent summers at Experience Camps, my life could have gone down a very dark and scary path. I am not sure how to explain but Sacha, Jenny, Sara, and everyone at Experience Camps have saved my life in some strange way that will forever be ingrained in my heart. Experience Camps was the foundation in letting my healing begin and allowing me to just be a normal child again.  

Forever Thankful,

Dashaun

Dashaun’s counselor Sacha has watched him grow into the wonderful young man he is today. Sacha writes...“I'm honored to have been Dashaun's counselor to watch his growth over the years, and to have been part of his camp journey.  He came to camp his first year scared and unsure of how to deal with his grief. He needed a bit of encouragement, but once he got his bearings, it was exciting to see him try new sports activities, participate in college league and learn to help his fellow campers.  He has a huge heart, was always willing to step in if anyone needed help, and was one of the best camp dog walkers we've ever had. One particular moment sticks out, where during his last summer, he helped console a fellow camper overcome with emotion during one of the clinical activities.  I looked over and saw him put his arm around his friend. I tearfully smiled and thought, what a long way he has come! He embraced camp - he laughed, he cried, he learned how to deal with his grief, he learned that he isn't alone, he learned how to try new things, but most of all, he learned that it's okay to smile and laugh.  A smile and laugh I won't ever forget, I'm so proud of Dashaun!”


John's Speech at the Miami Event

Hello! my name is John Warmbold.

I go to an amazing summer camp called ”Experience Camp.” Experience Camp is all about supporting kids who have lost a loved one.

I lost my mom.

After she died, I felt like no one could help and I was all alone. But then when my dad told me about Experience Camp, I realized that there were people that could help and I wasn’t alone.

When I first came to Experience Camp, I was nervous, I didn’t know anyone, and I wasn’t sure if I would really enjoy this camp. I was placed in Bunk 14, or as the camp calls it, B:14. The only person there I knew was my friend Ethan. My counselors were Aaron, Evan and Danny. My bunk mates were Daniel, Rowan, Leland, Noah, Victor, Hunter, Max, Brandon, Austin, Ethan, and me. We had a bunch of activities to do like tubing, ziplining, rock climbing, and the obstacle course.

One of my favorite things about camp is College League. At the beginning of the week, the kids and counselors are put on a team named after a college and there’s one counselor that is the Dean of the team. The teams then compete in different activities, and at the end of the week, there’s a winner. Last year, the teams were Clemson Tigers and Pitt Wolves, and I was on Clemson. College League was so much fun!

The thing I like about camp is that kids who’ve lost a loved one get to feel like they’re not alone., There are sharing times and sometimes you make projects to help you talk about your grief. To me, Experience Camp is a place where I can talk about my feelings and feel comforted. You can talk to anyone there about your person who died. That’s one of my favorite parts about it. Everyone is always there for you.

When you arrive at camp, they give you a necklace, which has your name spelled out in small, wooden letters, and a bead for each year you’ve gone to the camp. I’ve been there two years, so I have two beads. But the main reason I decided, “Hey, I’ll give it a shot”, is that I knew it would help me. It’s a place I can call home. It’s home because of the community. The people there do their all to help each and every camper, and I really appreciate that about them. Each camper and counselor is extremely sympathetic, and I like that.

I loved Experience Camp, and I hope you do too. We would all appreciate it if you considered donating to this camp, and if you already have donated in the past, all your donations were used and appreciated. Thank you.


My time at camp has been truly transformative...

Jordan Brickman has been a volunteer since 2016, and can't wait to come back to our Pennsylvania camp for summer 2019. Thank you Jordan for coming back year after year, and always putting a smile on everyone's faces.

I first became involved with Experience Camps about 6 years ago. I was working for Wiley Cerilli (ExCamps Board member and volunteer) at SinglePlatform and he often spoke about Experience Camps. In an attempt to get valuable face time with my CEO, I decided to attend a few camp fundraising events. I quickly realized how amazing the Experience Camps program was and after learning they were opening a program near me, I knew I needed to be a part of it. 


I am now entering my fourth year as a volunteer, and my time at camp has been truly transformative. The strength that these children (and volunteers) possess keeps me inspired and motivated not just for the one week of camp but throughout the entire year. 


I love all of my campers, and to see them mature each year is very special. There is one camper who hits really close to home for me, because he is actually my best friend's step-son, Bobby. To be able to help him grow, and come to terms with his deceased father has given me great pride, and a special relationship that we will both carry for the rest of our lives. Bobby's sister, Isa, is also a camper on the girls side, and it's been amazing hearing her counselors talk about her growth over the past few years. 


One of my favorite stories from camp involves the game Nukem. My bunk was playing another bunk and another boy, Josh, showed up wanting to play. Josh is the youngest and smallest kid in camp, and also the most shy. During College League introductions he didn't want to stand and high five his teammates because he was so shy. When I told my bunk that Josh was now on their team all 7 of them, at once, yelled "JOSH!!" and gave him a big group hug. In that moment, Josh was no longer shy. Instead he had a huge smile on his face, and for a few minutes forgot that he was scared to be away from home and was just happy to be a kid playing with his new friends.


From College League, to watermelon wrestling, to downtime (yes even downtime), to the final bonfire, to the counselor party, camp is an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I hope to one day pass down the lessons I've learned to my children. 


I wear the purple wristband on my wrist all year as a reminder of the lessons camp has taught me. It's normal to laugh, to cry, to jump around, to scream, to be quiet. It's definitely normal to ask for another round of chicken nuggets, but above all, it's important to remember that no matter what you are going through in life you can always get through it.


 You are never ever alone. 

You had the power all along my dear...

At the young age of 9, Andres Galindo realized his mom was continuously scheduling doctor appointments.  Although he witnessed much of the aftermath of the treatment, he was mostly sheltered from it. His mom passed away in 2016 after battling metastatic breast cancer for 5 years. Her passing was a devastating surprise to him.   

After Andres' mom passed, he and his 5-year-old sister went to live with his father and step-mom full-time.  Andres and his sister relocated; therefore they transferred to a new school in a new city. Andres was introverted, kept to himself, and didn't speak up much at school. Andres' school recommended that he attend Experience Camps.

Fast-forward two years later and Andres is now in middle school. He rides his bike to and from school daily, has joined the cross-country team, has excelled in school, and participated for the first time in his school's talent show. Andres is thriving, and even taking 7 full periods of class! and is thriving in the juggling of 7 periods.  

Andres' stepmother tells us about his resilience. "He is an amazing big brother. Since the passing of his mom, I have adopted Andres and his sister.  They share a half sister now.  He genuinely cares and protects them.  Andres loves his big brother status because that means he gets two scoops of ice cream instead of their one, and gets to order from the adult menu."

Andres' loss is one that has changed his life forever.  Experience CalEx camp, has, undoubtedly, helped and taught him how to cope with that irreplaceable loss.

"The CalEx experience is magical and if there was ever the Land of Oz, Andres has found it - along with all the other campers that attend throughout the country," says Andres' stepmom.

Andres is constantly looking forward to CalEx camp and has made a commitment to himself to return as a youth lead or volunteer as soon as he's of the right age.

"You had the power all along my dear," is what his family tells him all the time, and thanks to Experience Camps, he found it.

Andres' whole family is forever grateful for what he got out of camp. "On behalf of my husband and I, thank you for the selfless and incredible work your organization does. You have helped in the healing process with the most humane and simple principles of LOVE and care."

Volunteering has become a part of who I am...

Cerji Colvin has been a CalEx volunteer since 2015, and is a bugle extraordinaire! Thank you Cerji for sharing your story with us and for all that you bring to Experience Camps!

"My parents were killed in a car accident when I was five, and back then no one talked about how kids experience grief. I felt alone, and didn't want to feel different from everyone else my age, so I didn't talk about it. 

I went to summer camp from fifth grade through the summer after my first year of college. I loved camp (and still do), and was so happy to have the opportunity to go. When I found out there was such a thing as grief camp, I thought it was such an amazing combination - a really fun place where grieving kids can have a great time, make new friends, and learn that they're not alone.

 Volunteering at Experience Camps has become a part of who I am, and I'm proud of the years I've spent getting to know campers who've benefited from their time at camp. I'm so grateful to have the chance to help support these campers in ways that weren't available to me when I was younger. 

I'm happy to play the bugle calls at camp, and I think the campers appreciate it as well. Sometimes I think they like it even more when I make mistakes! I also love teaching archery at camp. It means a lot to me when the campers are able to have fun learning to do something I'm passionate about in my own life. 

California Experience connects so many people - campers and counselors - in so many ways. It really is the #bestweekever!"

Camp really opened his eyes...

LJ Ruiz was in his element the second he arrived at camp in 2018 for his first summer. LJ is an active kid, loves sports, and enjoys constantly being in motion.

"Movement is the way LJ deals with his pain, and being able to do that alongside his buddies was so wonderful for him. Bonding, dancing, singing, and especially seeing other kids with similar stories. It really was a HUGE eye opener for him."

Though it's been 5 years since the death of his father, it can sometimes feel like it was yesterday. "Grief NEVER ends. Especially when it happens to a young boy such as LJ", said Jennifer.

When LJ came home, his mom immediately noticed something was different. "He was changed. It was amazing. Seeing the other campers so openly share made LJ realize that he shouldn't be ashamed. He doesn't have that many friends that have lost a parent, so it's not something that he was used to being around. Camp really opened his eyes to know that he wasn't alone."


LJ and his mom are both so grateful for camp."I've seen an enormous change in his attitude and how he deals with his grief. I'm curious to see how the harder days go, but I know he's armed with better coping tools because of Experience Camps."

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.