Two weeks ago, I once again had the opportunity to spend a week volunteering with Experience Camps. Experience Camps is a nonprofit organization that organizes free one-week sleepaway camps for grieving children who have lost a parent or sibling. Last year, I volunteered at the Southern California location (CalEx); this year, I had the opportunity to help Experience Camps open a brand new camp in Michigan (MidwEx). I’ve been pretty swamped since getting back to reality, but over the weekend, I got a thank you video from ExCamps… and teared up hearing the kids say thank you directly. (Click here if you want to check it out.) I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out on writing about my week!
The Philadelphia Inquirer just published a lovely profile on PennEx, the Pennsylvania camp, which you can read here.)
My former coworker Justine used to volunteer with ExCamps; every year in her Christmas letter, she would mention that volunteering at ExCamps is the best week of her year. Though Justine now sits on the Board of Directors and doesn’t actually go to camp in the summer, I was inspired last year to sign up for a week in the summer – I thought it would be a nice way to honor Theodora and her mom (even though Carol died when Theodora was an adult). One of these years, Theodora and I are hoping we can volunteer together, but for now, I settle for just telling her all about it and exchanging texts throughout the week.
Theodora was one of the only people I chatted with this year at camp, though. There is a strict no-electronics policy at all the ExCamps – you can’t even carry your phone to use as a watch! So I was limited to checking my phone just a few times a day. Last year, I was able to completely disconnect from work and that worked out fine; this year, I had just started a new project with a new team, and there was a lot more handholding needed, which was unfortunately pretty stressful. And yet, I felt silly being stressed about work – ExCamps certainly puts my problems in perspective!
This year, I had a cabin of ten year old girls, all of whom were brand new to ExCamps (as was the case for most campers, since this was a new location). At CalEx, 80% of the campers were returning from a previous year; it was a really different experience to have a whole bunk of girls who didn’t know what they were in for. Many arrived clearly nervous about the experience -they had been told they were going to “grief camp”, and that didn’t sound too fun! Plus, many had never been to any kind of sleepaway camp, so that in itself was a new experience.
In particular, two of the girls in my bunk were so shy that they wouldn’t even say their names when we went around the circle saying our names and our favorite ice cream flavors. But by the end of the week… wow. What a transformation! One of those same girls who had been too shy to introduce herself on day 1 told me on the last day of camp that she didn’t want to go home, she wished she could stay at camp because she felt more comfortable there, and she wished I could be her mom. (Yup, I teared up at that.) Other girls who had spent our first “sharing circles” unwilling to talk about their losses had now gone on to stand up in front of the whole camp at our closing bonfire and pour their hearts out with their deepest darkest feelings. There were a lot of tears, but there were also so many hugs, laughs, and dance parties. All the girls learned that “grief camp” wasn’t actually a sad place, but a fun and joyous place where everyone “gets you” and what you’ve been through.
This year, my favorite parts of camp included taking the swim test more than a dozen times (I volunteered to swim alongside some of the girls who were too nervous to do it by themselves, some of whom took multiple attempts to pass); making “Stephanie Hirsch” milkshakes in a giant vat mixed with a lacrosse stick; coloring luminaries in honor of those we’ve lost, which lit the way to our closing campfire; and, of course, dancing our hearts out after every single meal. I really wanted to make it a new habit for me to get up and dance after every meal, but it turns out that’s not quite as welcomed after a business meal at a fancy restaurant as it is in a camp dining hall 😉
As far as the clinical sessions go, I was sorry to hear that my bunk wouldn’t be doing the “Bill of Rights” activity that my girls at CalEx seemed to get so much out of. In that activity, my girls brainstormed all the things they should have the right to do when grieving – to cry anytime, but also to laugh anytime; to talk about their loved one, or keep some stories to themselves. That activity is typically done with the older girls (last year I had 15 year olds).
My ten year olds this year, though, were touched by a different activity – reading The Invisible String, a beautiful picture book about how we are all connected to those we love with an invisible string that never ever goes away no matter what the physical limits. After reading the book, everyone in the bunk traced our handprints on a pillowcase for each girl, and then wrote a message inside the handprint to remind her that her camp family would always be there for her. My only regret was that the counselors didn’t get to keep a pillowcase for ourselves – I would love sleeping on that every night! But I really can’t complain – I certainly took home enough memories of camp to last a lifetime.
If any of this sparked your interest, check out www.experience.camp to learn more and see how you can help. ExCamps is always in need of both volunteers as well as donations, which help make these amazing experiences totally free for the kids. And if you have any inkling of interest in joining me next year, please reach out with any and all questions. Experience Camp is truly a life-changing experience, and I promise you won’t regret it.