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Camp Hope gives grieving kids outlets for coping

BARKER – Children grieve differently than adults. That is why there is a place like Camp Hope.

The summer camp gives children a chance to enjoy activities such as arts and crafts, music, swimming, making s’mores around a bonfire and a dance party. And perhaps most importantly, there is conversation.

Leann McConchie, camp coordinator, said that during most activities children talk together about their losses, share thoughts and feelings with other campers, trained volunteers and professional counselors. They come to recognize that grief is a natural response to losing a loved one. Together, campers learn positive ways to cope with loss; they learn to help each other; and they learn that they are not alone.

There are still openings for participants and adult volunteers at a free camp designed to address the specific needs of grieving children ages 7 to 13. “Camp Hope” is planned for June 24-26 at the YMCA’s Camp Kenan on the shores of Lake Ontario in Barker.

The camp is sponsored by the Bereavement Department of Niagara Hospice and is open to anyone from Western New York who has had a significant life change or lost a loved one through death – whether or not they ever received hospice care.

“We would like to have the children’s applications by the end of May, because we don’t want anyone to be disappointed (if camp fills up),” McConchie said.

McConchie said the group also plans a training session for volunteers from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on June 4 at the Niagara Hospice campus, 4675 Sunset Drive, Lockport, with an alternative date to be scheduled, as well.

The camp strives to provide the right child/adult ratio, so the number of volunteers dictates the number of children eligible for camp each year, said McConchie.

She said the camp, now in its 16th year, usually enrolls around 40 campers.

“It’s often difficult for children to speak about the losses and deaths they have experienced,” said McConchie. “They find that most of the other children they socialize with have never experienced such a loss. Camp Hope provides these children with a unique opportunity to meet and talk with other children who are grieving, and also provides them with the coping tools they need to begin healing and to have a foundation from which to understand and cope with future losses.”

McConchie said it is important to note that children eligible for camp are not just those who have experienced the death of a loved one.

“This camp is for children who have experienced a major life change, such as a less than amicable divorce, for example, or a tragedy on school property or a killing in their neighborhood,” she said. “It’s for children who have had something happen that impacted them closely.”

Camp Hope is staffed by professional counselors, trained volunteers and a nurse who is on hand for the entire weekend. During the camp weekend, children learn to express their grief through many scheduled activities and a memorial bonfire.

Joanna Torreano has volunteered at the camp for eight years and notes that volunteers are invited to contribute whatever time they’d like to share – it doesn’t have to be the whole weekend.

“I have seen the tremendous value this camp has,” said Torreano, a retired elementary school teacher. “I find that children are sometimes more apt to speak to me than to their families about their losses because they know their families hurt, too. I’m a neutral person. I’m there as a listener and comforter.”

McConchie said organizers choose a number of activities designed to draw children out and make it easier to talk about their feelings.

A new activity this year will be a drumming circle.

“I’m excited about this,” said McConchie. “The kids will learn how to connect with what’s inside and how to release and have some fun, too.

“I cannot overstate how kids grieve differently than adults and it can be overwhelming for them at times,” McConchie said. “Camp is a great way for them to talk about their feelings and get some good, hardy play in. And, this will give them a foundation for grieving for the rest of their lives.”

About six weeks following camp, the children and their guardians will meet again with staff and volunteers for a Camp Hope reunion. Children will be given a camp yearbook to exchange signatures with their new friends.

McConchie said she is always looking for volunteers, who must be at least 18, comfortable around children, and must not have experienced a loss in their own lives in the past year.

However, it is helpful if they have experienced grief at one time in their lives, she noted. And, because they are working so closely with children, volunteers go through a careful screening process.

For a free camper or volunteer application, contact the Niagara Hospice bereavement department at CampHope@niagarahospice.com, 280-0777 or visit: www.niagarahospice.org/grief-children.

Camp Hope is free to campers and relies on donations from local service clubs, organizations, individuals, and grants.

To make a donation or to sponsor a camper, contact the Niagara Hospice development office at 280-0780.