OAKLAND, Maine — Inside Cabin 21 at Camp Manitou in Oakland, a group of boisterous preteen boys tried to outdo one another’s cartwheels and side flips while others bounced a tennis ball back and forth. Then they all got together and performed the daily ritual of getting down on all fours and forming a human pyramid in the wide channel between rows of bunks.
The trumpet fanfare blared over the camp’s public address system, signaling lunch. Everyone bolted for the door, beckoned by the prospect of fajitas.
It’s a scene replicated every year in summer camps across the nation, but the kids at Manitou last week shared a unique bond — they’re grieving the loss of someone close to them.
“Back at school and at home, it’s almost like you have to keep things to yourself when you talk about grief,” said Stephen McNulty, a lanky, energetic 14-year-old from Ashland, Massachusetts. “Here we don’t have to worry about that. Everyone knows where you’re coming from.”
This was McNulty’s fifth year attending Experience Camp, a weeklong summer camp geared toward children ages 9 to 16 who have lost a parent or sibling. McNulty started coming after his mother died of cancer in 2012. A year earlier, his father was in a car crash that left him with severe brain damage that prevented him from caring for his son.
After his mother’s death, McNulty went to live with a couple — an oncology nurse and a hospital chaplain — who helped the family through one of the most difficult times imaginable. The couple has since adopted him.
When he stepped off the bus in Oakland the first year, he and the other campers were greeted by dozens of counselors, directors and staff cheering, clapping and throwing around high fives. The welcome had him hooked instantly.
“It was a brotherhood, an immediate connection,” said McNulty, an aspiring politician who can — and will — fire off the name of every U.S. president in less than 30 seconds. He’s turned himself into something of a leader at this camp, according to the director.
Camp Manitou is perched on East Pond in Oakland and has been in operation since 1947. It serves groups of campers throughout the summer, including one session which lasts a full seven weeks.
But for one week each year since 2009, Experience Camp takes over, bringing 150 grieving boys from across New England and beyond (a few come from as far away as Minnesota) at no cost to the families. The organization also rents out three other summer camps in upstate New York, California and the Southeast each year.
This camp isn’t all fun and games. Each day, campers take a break from the fun of splashing around in the pond, climbing the rock wall and playing football to sit down with their bunkmates and counselors for a “bereavement circle.” They share memories of loved ones they lost, and tales of battles with cancer, suicide and tragic accidents. They learn from trained counselors about ways to cope with their grief and find their own individual ways through the grieving process.
Tissues make the rounds, hugs are exchanged and bonds grow, said Benjamin Schocket-Greene, a 19-year-old former camper from Massachusetts who now volunteers as a counselor. He has spent nine years total at Experience Camp. His father died when Benjamin was 7, and his grandmother the year after.
“Everyone handles it differently,” Schocket-Greene said. “You never know who’s going to open up and need a hug.”
But the rest of the week is devoted to fun. The camp has tennis courts, a floor hockey rink, soccer pitch, ropes course, climbing wall, boats and paddleboards, and even a kitchen where kids can learn to cook.
Experience Camps says that 85 percent of its campers come back to do it again. The children and teens are usually referred to the program by bereavement counselors or hospice providers, or family members who heard about the camps.
“These kids have already experienced something traumatic that makes them feel different in their home lives and school lives, and they shouldn’t have to feel that when they come here,” said Sara Deren, executive director of Experience Camps. “The most important part for them is being around kids who get it.”
Experience Camps started after officials from Circle Camps, a group that runs a similar program for girls based at Camp Tapawingo in Sweden, Maine, approached Camp Manitou officials and asked whether they’d be interested in starting a program for boys.
They took in 24 boys their first year, growing gradually to the current cap of 150. Manitou’s regular summer camp is about twice the size, but Experience Camp says it limits its size to ensure every camper has the individual support he needs.
Nine summers later, Maine’s Experience Camp is in the process of building a second camp on East Pond, this one geared toward girls. Josh Hahn, associate director of Experience Camps, will oversee that camp when it opens for the first time next summer.
“There’s such a need. Every year, there are kids we can’t accept,” Hahn said. “They’ve gone through this. I wish that none of them had to.”
Outside of their somber, intimate bereavement circles, it can be hard to tell that these kids have seen loss that no kid should have to. The laughter spreads across the fields, and from cabin to cabin, and friends move from one activity to another with arms around each other’s shoulders. Spontaneous goofy dance parties break out by the waterfront, powered by portable speakers and high-energy counselors.
“These are very, very strong emotions coming from the biggest challenge of our lives,” McNulty said. “And it’s good that we get to figure it out around each other.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.