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Experience Camps brings therapy and joy to kids whose loved ones have died

by Alexandra Zaslow / / Source: TODAY

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Lillian Harvey’s sister, Maitland, died in a plane crash last December at just 18 years old. For 12-year-old Lillian, finding people to relate to has been a struggle since enduring the tragic loss.

“People just say the same thing over and over again: ‘She’s in a better place, she’s watching over you,’” Lillian said. “And that just makes me feel worse. I know that she’s in a better place, but I just wish that she was here.”

That feeling of isolation changed the moment Lillian arrived at Experience Camps at Camp Kennybrook in Monticello, New York, this past summer. Like Lillian, every one of the 90 campers at “KenEx” has lost someone significant in their lives.

It was at KenEx that I met Lillian.

Having lost my dad four years ago, I signed up to volunteer as a counselor in hopes of bringing comfort to campers. But all it took was a couple hours for me to realize that I would forever be changed by KenEx, too.

Experience Camps
On the first and last day, campers take part in an activity called circle time, where campers got to share their feelings with their bunk and counselors. Courtesy of Rebecca Davis

I was helping one camper unpack when she took a photo from her suitcase out: “This is my dad. He killed himself and I’m not sure why,” she said.

The next day, she pulled out the same photo during circle time, a clinical activity that gives campers the opportunity to share stories or feelings with their bunkmates and counselors. I watched as she bravely spoke about her grief, as well as what she’d learned in the year since her father’s passing. At just 9, she was able to eloquently put into words what even adults like myself struggle to communicate.

RELATED: Therapists offer free treatment to grieving kids

And she was able to — in front of people she’d met only hours earlier — because of the magical bond everyone at KenEx shares.

Sara Deren started Experience Camps in 2009 at Camp Manitou in Maine with 27 campers. Today more than 300 kids at three locations gather to grieve together through a combination of activities led by licensed clinicians and pure sleepaway-camp fun.

Experience Camps
Girl campers on the lake trampoline.Courtesy of Experience Camps

“We talk a lot about the balance in grief and that kids can have fun and also feel sad — and sometimes that’s going to happen at the same time,” Deren said. That “can be a really confusing concept for kids. We want them to understand that all their feelings are normal and other people feel them, too.”

Experience Camps
One camper on the zip line.Courtesy of Experience Camps

“Kids are going to feel much more comfortable opening up and sharing with each other when they’ve already started to form relationships in the cabin and through different activities,” Dan Wolfson, KenEx’s Clinical Program Co-Director, told me.

One morning during my week there, campers took part in a “grief journey” where they went around to four stations, each representing a different emotion felt during the grieving process. At the anger station, campers wrote in sidewalk chalk what made them angriest. After venting, they smashed water balloons over what they’d written, clearing away the words and, hopefully, pent-up frustrations.

Experience Camps
Camper writing what makes him angry with sidewalk chalk.Courtesy of Rebecca Davis

Later that day, they hiked to a spot where they let balloons go into the air — an act of release.

Wolfson led the exercise: “Sometimes it’s important to check in with ourselves and realize we’ve been carrying a lot of weight around and maybe there’s something we feel ready to let go of.”

Experience Camps
Experience Camps campers releasing balloons.Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

And after the emotional exercise came a universal treat: ice cream.

Experience Camps
Enjoying ice cream after a long hike and an emotional day with some of my campers. Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

Counselor Zachary Bergman said he’s found the campers’ ability to transition between fun activities like swimming in the lake and tough therapy sessions to be remarkable.

“I was able to look over at the kids — not really thinking about what we just talked about — and smile,” Bergman told me. “Seeing them happy made me happy.”

KenEx isn’t just special in its unique mission. It also welcomes campers to attend at no cost, thanks to individual donations and foundation support.

Experience Camps
I was a counselor to the youngest girls and found it remarkable to see how strong these 8 and 9 year olds are. Courtesy of Alexandra Zaslow

Midway through my week volunteering, I asked to lead a workshop.

After my dad died in a car accident, I turned to writing. It became the best outlet for me to express my emotions and still continues to be the invisible thread that links my dad, a former writer himself, and me.

I wanted to share that same gift with the campers, so I asked them each to write a letter to the special person they lost.

Experience Camps
Alexandra Zaslow instructing a camper during a writing workshop.Courtesy of Rebecca Davis

At first, some of them were unsure about what to write, but after reading my letter out loud, they became eager to read theirs. One girl even thanked me because she’d lost her mom suddenly, too, and felt comfort in hearing about my journey.

It’s those types of connections that make KenEx the special place it is and why, according to Wolfson, 90 percent of campers end up returning for a second summer.

Experience Camps
When signing up for the camp, I asked to lead a writing workshop, since writing has helped me so much through my own grief. Campers seemed to really get a lot out of the activity. Courtesy of Rebecca Davis

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“My goal is to just keep coming back here until I’m old enough to be a counselor,” 10-year-old Zander Brown told me. This year was his second at the camp after losing his father. “[Then] I can give back the experience to the younger kids when I’m older.”

Hudson Lovell feels the same way.

“I was extremely nervous and screamed at my mom for making me go,” Hudson, 14, said. “But I feel like coming to this camp was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life because it helped me through grieving and helped me understand people’s pain.”

“The difference between friends here and friends in my hometown is that most kids don’t really understand and feel really awkward whenever I bring it up,” Hudson continued. “Here you can talk openly and freely about it and that’s my favorite part.”

Experience Camps
Campers finishing up College League, a friendly competition, which teaches campers valuable lessons about being on a team.Courtesy of Experience Camps

No matter your age, race, religion or what you’ve experienced, KenEx is a family. Everyone is there to support one another and it’s really a beautiful thing to witness.

“Whatever you’re going through, you take a look at these kids who are going through something that no child should ever have to experience and they’re getting through it with a smile on their face,” Deren said. “If these kids can do that then you can put a smile on your face and go out and do some good in the world.”

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