The healing power of fun
Reprinted from the May 2016 edition of Colorado Sernity
Article by Stephen Knapp
In many ways, a day at Camp Comfort is no different than a day at any other summer camp.
Excited children plunge headlong into exciting new experiences, bunking with fascinating new friends and gobbling their kid-cuisine camp-chow in a rustic dining hall. They ride horses, explore mysterious forest trails and try their small hands at simple crafts. They sing time-tested campfire songs and pull wriggling rainbows from a clear mountain pond.
In other ways, Mount Evans Home Health Care & Hospice’s ground-breaking experiment in the healing power of fun is an altogether different kettle of trout.
“In my shoulders I felt afraid,” says a pony-tailed angel named Emily, who recently lost her dad to cancer. Maybe 7 years old, Emily wears pink socks and an oversized pink sweatshirt. Like the eight other children in her “Chipmunks” group, she’s tried to plot the course of her personal tsunami on a crayon outline of her thin 4-foot frame traced onto an Emily-sized sheet of paper. She speaks clearly, but seems unsure whether to giggle or to cry.
“In my arms I felt sleepy,” Emily continues. “In my mouth I wanted to yell.”
One at a time, the other children in Rocky Mountain Village’s picturesque Genesee Hall take their turn, sometimes confidently, sometimes quietly, sometimes tearfully, each one reliving the darkest hour of their darkest day. The small audience listens with genuine interest. It’s ground they know well.
“In my stomach I felt worried.”
“I felt cold in my legs.”
“My heart is where I felt lonely.”
After half an hour of intense personal revelation, the Chipmunks pack up their tracings, put on their shoes and run chattering into the sunshine. It’s time to try the camp’s zip-line, and solemn matters blow instantly away in the clean mountain breeze. That’s just how it goes at Camp Comfort.
“If this was just a grief camp where everybody sat around and cried, nobody would come, and it wouldn’t do the kids any good,” says Wendy Snow, a licensed social worker and one of the many Mount Evans bereavement professionals who’ve helped make Camp Comfort the much-studied template for similar programs across the country. “Fun is a great way to deal with grief because it gets you out of your down-and-out mood. It’s a good lesson for the kids that it’s okay to have fun even if you’re sad. It’s okay to feel happy.”
Now entering its 26th summer, Camp Comfort has helped more than 1,300 heartbroken children ages 6 to 12 come to terms with the loss of a family member or friend, encouraging them to share memories of loved ones lost and find sense and solace in a suddenly scary world. This year, between the two golden Rocky Mountain weekends of June 17-19 and July 8-10, about a hundred more Colorado children will drop their bedrolls at the Rocky Mountain Village Easter Seals Camp at Empire Junction. They’ll each be issued a volunteer “Buddy” who’ll provide quiet companionship and devoted attention during their stay, and they’ll take part in a carefully choreographed program of heart-healing therapies and pulse-pounding thrills. To begin, though, they’ll each receive a short workbook to fill out. Called “Healing My Heart,” it not only gives surviving parents a crucial road-map to what’s on their child’s mind, it’s often a grieving child’s first opportunity to assess their own situation.
“It makes them think about what’s happened, and how it’s affected them,” explains Camp Comfort’s director Barb Lamperski. Officially retiring in 2014 after 20 years as Mount Evans’ bereavement director, Lamperski simply didn’t have the heart to walk away from Camp Comfort. “Kids don’t really know how to talk about their grief, and often in schools they don’t have anyone to talk to who will ask the questions and listen to the answers. They feel isolated. At Camp Comfort, they get to talk to other kids who’re going through what they’re going through. It makes losing a loved one seem more normal and less scary.”
Down at the fishing dock, a few fellows from Evergreen Trout Unlimited are hosting their twice-annual Camp Comfort fishing clinic. Littleton twins Jeff and Joe, who lost their mom to sudden illness, look perfectly normal and don’t seem scared at all. Tall, red-haired and 12, the brothers take turns casting until Joe hooks a spirited 10-inch rainbow.
“Fishing is the highlight of the weekend for many of the campers,” Lamperski says. “They love the fishing, and they also feel the support of our wonderful Trout Unlimited volunteers.”
Joe admires his flashing catch for a long moment, and then gently releases it back into the water.
“It was pretty tough at first,” admits Jeff, softly smiling through a spray of freckles. “But once you get through it, and you hear everybody else’s stories, it’s nice to know that other kids have gone through the same thing.”
At Camp Comfort, the willingness to speak frankly about tragic loss and overwhelming grief can be disconcerting, even shocking, to the uninitiated. But if the campers are candid about their broken hearts, they don’t dwell on them. Pain is merely an overfull piece of baggage they share in common, and sharing its weight between them lightens the load for all.
“Often the person who died was that person they went to for support when something difficult happened,” Lamperski says. “They find themselves not only in the midst of their grief, and their family’s grief, but also missing terribly the support, fun and nurturing the person who died had provided them. Camp Comfort’s environment of support and fun comes from several different individuals and activities, and offers the camper the experience of a new community where healing can occur.”
If easing a child’s sorrow is a daunting task under the best of circumstances, many campers show up with extra challenges stowed in their “Minions” duffel bag.
“Camp Comfort is able to take kids with any physical or emotional disability,” says Lamperski. “The camp is completely handicapped-equipped, and if a camper needs a caregiver during their weekend, one that the family has provided can attend camp with that child. Also, kids with emotional disabilities can have a one-on-one volunteer who has experience with their needs to help them participate fully.”
A heart-healing weekend at Camp Comfort costs $600 per child. While Mount Evans covers 75 percent of that price, many struggling families simply can’t spare the $150 they are asked to contribute. Funded by the generous donations of Mount Evans’ good neighbors, Camp Comfort scholarships ensure that no child in need of support and solace is ever turned away for want of money. By specifying that Mount Evans contributions be applied to the Camp Comfort Endowment, or by becoming a Mount Evans Partner and dividing their gifts into manageable monthly deductions from credit card, debit card or bank account, kind-hearted folks can ensure that Camp Comfort is there for the most vulnerable victims of loss for generations to come.
Flushed and breathless after her first-ever zip-line ride, Emily doesn’t have the faintest idea who helped sponsor her weekend amid the green pines, bright waters and cheerful commotion of Camp Comfort, nor would it ever occur to her to wonder. That’s just fine, of course. Emily’s got other things on her mind.
“At first I didn’t want to come here, but now I’m really glad I did,” she says, bursting with smiles and accomplishment. “It’s sad sometimes, but it’s really fun, too. It makes me feel better.”