Jennifer Wilkinson was at work in 2013 when her husband died in front of the children.
“It was traumatic and hard,” says Wilkinson, who at the time lived in a small North Dakota town. “No matter how we tried after that, we were ‘the people that happened to.’”
She moved with Layla, now 11, and Alexander, now 9, to Vancouver, Washington, hoping to escape the cloud that hung over them. The three went to family counseling. But there was no peace — not until Camp Erin.
Layla and Alexander were referred to the free Oregon summer camp for children and teens ages 6-17 who have lost a loved one. They spent a long weekend — not all glum — with 70 other kids who’d also tasted potent grief.
Founded with a grant from famed Seattle Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer, Camp Erin takes place in 45 locations nationwide, including Oregon. Here, Providence Hospice operates the weekend.
Before Camp Erin, Alexander said he felt different from other kids. Now he’s ready to move forward in life.
“It’s amazing,” Wilkinson says. “I’m glad my kids were able to be a part of it.”
‘How they feel’
Set for August at Camp Kuratli in Boring, the camp capitalizes on the power of bringing together people who’ve felt alone in suffering.
“The thing that is always really powerful to me is seeing kids meet other kids who understand them,” says Christi Crowley, coordinator of Oregon’s Camp Erin.
The camp does hold sessions in which kids share their stories, but there is also plenty of play in the great outdoors. A vigorous organized game or simple dashing about may be the way children let loose their grief. Other kids draw, sculpt in clay or write poetry.
“We want kids to be able to express themselves in how they feel at that moment,” Crowley explains. “If they want to run around and be wild, that’s what we do.”
Interest from a Moyer Foundation seed grant continues to fund Camp Erin, but Providence foots much of the bill.
‘A safe place for any emotion’
Children who lose a parent or a sibling have questions. Adults tend to speak in abstractions about death and children can’t understand. They tend to fear another death, even theirs. Often, they wish they had said goodbye more thoroughly. Some even feel guilty, as if they could have done something to prevent the death.
“They feel things are out of control,” says Monica Andrews, a Providence child bereavement counselor who also works at Camp Erin.
To help re-establish a sense of safety, staff give campers simple choices — such as food. Staff also assure campers that they feel what they feel, and that is OK.
“We offer this safe place where not only is there an opportunity to be with other kids who’ve had someone die, but there is a safe place for any emotion,” Andrews says.
At one point, campers fill a large bulletin board with photographs of the person who died. In the culminating ceremony, they decorate bags with names, messages and reminders of the one they lost. The bags get filled with sand and lit candles and are set on a small raft, which is pushed out into the lake to drift away.
Tools of expression
Camp Erin fits the mission set down by the Sisters of Providence 150 years ago to reach the most vulnerable, says Jennifer Traeger, a hospice manager who oversees the camp.
“I can’t think of a more vulnerable population than grieving children,” Traeger says.
While the camp is for anyone and does not focus on one religious expression, staff make room for prayer and faith if it’s wanted. “Grief is not just an emotional experience, it is a spiritual experience,” says Traeger.
The camp has tracked progress in children who attend. One mother wrote that her son had never mentioned his father’s death. After camp, the boy affixed a photo of his dad on the refrigerator and began sharing memories. A survey spanning the 13 years of Camp Erin shows that as time goes by, those who attend as children most appreciate the tools they were given to express grief.
Balancing grief and play
Every kid goes through it differently. That’s why at Camp Erin there is roughly one staffer or volunteer for every camper.
Olivia Ramos, a Providence media relations staffer, volunteers. “The kids teach me about resilience,” she says. “They show me the importance of balancing grief and play.”
In sharing circles, Ramos finds she just has to get things started before the youngsters take it away, talking about the horrors of the emergency room or the site of blood.
“You just see lights come on in their eyes when they hear each other talk,” Ramos says. “This moment of not being alone is something they will carry with them the rest of their lives.”
Find out more
Camp Erin: For children who’ve experienced death of a loved one
Aug. 11-13 at Camp Kuratli in Boring
To apply on a rolling deadline:
Attention: Camp Erin Coordinator
6410 NE Halsey St., Suite 300
Portland, OR 97213
Fax: 503-215-4846 (Attn: Camp Erin)