Volunteers and staff members from the Center for Grieving Children in Portland were at America’s Camp Aug. 6-7 in the Berkshire Mountains in Hinsdale, Mass., to help support those for whom the camp was created: young people whose parents or siblings died as a result of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
But this year, camp was different because it was the last of 10 consecutive summers that campers gathered at the site where they learned that joy and sorrow can live side by side.
Before the start of camp, Center for Grieving Children outreach director Patricia Ellen said she expected campers would experience “an additional layer of grieving for the end of a cherished summer ritual that has touched all their lives.”
Maine’s Center for Grieving Children has been part of America’s Camp since its planning stages in early 2002, when camp directors approached Center for Grieving Children Executive Director Anne Lynch to create a partnership that has brought more than 50 center staff and volunteers to train and work with America’s Camp staff in providing grief support.
“From the start, we believed the center was uniquely qualified to help make America’s Camp a significant part of the children’s healing,” Lynch said.
“Ten years later, we have learned from the children and their families how true that was, and how important camp became to them. We are proud of what we gave them, and deeply grateful for what they taught us.”
More than 450 campers have attended the camp which, in later years, included children and siblings of law enforcement officers and firefighters who have died in the line of duty since 9-11.
Hundreds of volunteers, counselors, camp directors, mental health consultants, nurses, spiritual providers and artists worked together to create an arts- and action-based summer camp that allowed children to safely explore their grief, find support and discover and demonstrate their resilience.
Throughout the years, campers said they loved being with peers, where “I’m not singled out as the 9-11 kid.”
Marian Fontana, a 9-11 firefighter widow who wrote “A Widow’s Walk,” a memoir chronicling her experience of grief, said her son’s time at camp “made a profound difference in both of our lives,” from the first time he attended.
“I will never forget picking him up. He ran across the lawn into my arms and said, ‘Mom! It was the best week of my life!’ I wanted to cry.”
America’s Camp has combined typical summer camp fun with activities to help children express feelings and address the unique challenges this group has had, such as coping with emotions triggered by media coverage of the 9-11 attacks’ anniversaries.
Campers shared personal struggles, like how hard it can be to try to teach your little brother about what your dad was like.
Each year, they took on collaborative art projects that involved the entire camp community, including creating a sculpture, painting a wall mural, and stitching a giant group quilt.
Five of those art pieces were recently acquired by the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero.
The giant quilt, along with large-scale photographs of other pieces, will be displayed later this year at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9-11.
Campers attended America’s Camp at no charge, thanks to funding from the Twin Towers Fund and America’s Camp Foundation.
The center’s work has received support from the America’s Camp Foundation as well as A Little Hope foundation.
After learning about the center’s experience with America’s Camp, other camp organizations now are consulting with the center, Lynch said.
In July, the center provided grief support services for campers and counselors after a 15-year-old camper drowned at a summer camp in Michigan.
Back in the Berkshires, America’s Camp ended Tuesday, Aug. 23.
“In these last couple of years, it has been amazing to see campers who started as teens now helping the younger children as full counselors,” Ellen said.
“At the same time, these older campers are grieving new losses — that their parents weren’t at their graduations or weddings, for example.”
Yet transformation has always occurred at America’s Camp, and it will again this year, and in new ways.
Plans are already being made to transform camp from a physical place into a community connected by reunions, online networks and love. In that way, America’s Camp spirit will continue.
The Center for Grieving Children annually serves more than 4,000 grieving children, teens, and adults through peer support, outreach, and education.
The center honors and encourages the safe expression of grief and loss, and provides a loving community to foster the discovery and development of individual resiliency and emotional well-being. And it provides free services for individuals and families, and relies on financial contributions from individuals, businesses, foundations, United Way and special events.
For information, call 775-5216 or visit cgcmaine.org.