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Jenna shares story of America's Camp — a place for kids who lost loved ones on 9/11

Now young women, Caitlin Leavey and Brittany Oelschlager formed a lifelong bond at a camp for kids who lost parents in the Sept. 11 attacks.
/ Source: TODAY

Caitlin Leavey and Brittany Oelschlager were just little girls when their worlds were shattered on Sept. 11, 2001, after their fathers, a pair of New York City firefighters, were killed in the terrorist attacks.

An important part of their healing journey in the last 20 years began when they met at America's Camp, a free, non-profit camp in the Berkshire Mountains for children who lost loved ones on 9/11.

"America's Camp was the candle in the darkness for us," Oelschlager told Jenna Bush Hager on TODAY Thursday.

Jenna first met Leavey and Oelschlager 10 years ago at America's Camp, where they were serving as counselors. The two had been bunkmates when they first met at the camp as children.

Two days before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, they reflected on what the camp meant to them, how they are carrying on the memories of their fathers, and the feelings they are experiencing ahead of Saturday's memorial.

Brittany Oelschlager continues to honor the memory of her father, New York City firefighter Douglas Oelschlager, who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. TODAY

FDNY Lt. Joseph Leavey and Oelschlager's father, firefighter Douglas Oelschlager, worked together in the same firehouse. Their daughters now also have formed a bond for life.

"It's like friends until the end," Oelschlager said. "From something bad came something great, and this is definitely something great."

One of their favorite topics of discussion is their love for their fathers. Leavey remembered how much her father loved being a firefighter, while Oelschlager remembered her burly father being like "Mr. Mom" and serving as her Girl Scout troop leader.

When they were killed in the attacks, the girls became two of the more than 3,000 children who lost parents that day and had to grow up way too fast.

"It was more than just two towers falling," Oelschlager said. "It was our entire lives came crashing down with it."

"Everyone was like, 'Are you OK?'" Leavey said. "And I just I battled a lot. My first thought was like, 'Well, my dad was a happy person and I want to be happy,' but also knowing that it was OK to have to cry and to have feelings I think was very important for me. I wish I could tell my 10-year-old self now and embrace that 10-year-old self of mine."

The girls found a place of solace at America's Camp, where they were with other children who could relate to them.

Caitlin Leavey says her late father, FDNY Lt. Joseph Leavey, cherished being a firefighter. TODAY

"Just to know that there was all these kids there who were from the same experience, and all these people there who just want to make us happy and just let us be kids," Leavey said. "It just brought out so much light and sunshine for me, and I just felt like it was also a gift my dad gave to me, because he would always call me his sunshine."

They are following in their fathers' footsteps by giving back to the community as young women. Leavey is an educator and counselor, while Oelschlager is a social worker.

"Even though my dad is not here, I always try to find a way to carry on his legacy," Leavey said. "He was a family man, he loved kids, and this is what I want to do. I want to work with kids, I want to work with kids who lost a parent who have gone through trauma, and I can be able to relate."

Oelschlager recently worked with military veterans at an internship. Her father was a Navy veteran.

"And I felt like I was somehow doing it for him," she said.

The little girls who experienced such a devastating loss 20 years ago are now young women who will mark a solemn milestone on Saturday.

"It almost leaves you a little speechless, but I think 20 years, just you look back how far you've come," Oelschlager said. "And from those really dark, sad days, how we can laugh, and I can tell stories about my dad and laugh now."

"Something that I think a lot about with this anniversary coming up is how we can kind of release that taboo of talking about 9/11," Leavey said. "There's a lot of beauty from 9/11. Obviously, we want to remember all of those amazing people who are lost, but let's celebrate them."

America's Camp was the beginning of a healing journey that has continued for two decades for the two women.

"Trauma is beautiful, because they can get to a light with healing and dancing and happiness," Oelschlager said. "There can be a light at that end of that really dark tunnel."

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness," Leavey said.