Camp Erin is a children’s bereavement camp started by my family friends, designed to help children learn grief coping strategies and meet other people their age who have endured similar losses. Some people who only know my sarcastic, sharp-tongued persona don’t have any clue how much I adore kids, or how much it kills me when I see them struggling emotionally. As an aspiring comedy writer, I don’t often lead with that side of my personality. Instead, I’m focused on making people laugh which can be a daunting task considering that my everyday audience regularly interacts with successful comedy writers. So I wasn’t surprised by my coworkers’ dumbfounded reactions when I told them that I was volunteering at a children’s grief camp. Breaking news: This snarky tin man might have a heart after all.
The night before camp started, I reverted to my teenage self, nervous that the campers and other volunteers wouldn’t like me. I hadn’t been to camp since the fifth grade, and I wasn’t sure that I even had proper camping attire. My family and friends took turns sending me humorous texts conveying their skepticism about my ability to “rough it” in a cabin for 3 days. I responded with my own quips, insisting that the cabins likely had turndown service and a concierge. I mean, the camp was in Malibu. In all seriousness, I was extremely concerned that I would say the wrong thing or not know how to offer the proper support to the campers. The coordinators had done an excellent job training us and provided toolkits that included various talking points and scenarios, but I still worried about the unknown.
The fact that my Aunt Amy had agreed to volunteer with me helped calm my nerves. When I thought about asking someone to join me, Amy was the first person who came to mind. It’s not just Amy’s professional background that made her an ideal candidate (she was a nurse who worked in the NICU for several years and then with PEDS bone marrow transplants), but she also has a likability factor that’s unrivaled (except by me, of course). Everyone she encounters immediately wants to be her friend, and she’s truly one of the most fun people I’ve ever met. Amy enthusiastically signed up, and after two training sessions, we were ready to go.
As Amy and I set off in her car for Malibu on Friday morning, she looked me over and then remarked, “Boy those are some nice shoes for camping!” I glanced down at my Cole Hahn weekender shoes and began to worry. The coordinators had warned us that if they found our attire inappropriate for camp, they would ask us to change. I think that they had something else in mind when they said “inappropriate,” but I was starting to wonder if my Vineyard Vines polo shirt and J. Crew shorts were unsuitable for such an occasion. When we pulled into Camp Bloomfield an hour later and noticed that everyone else was wearing t-shirts and workout gear, Amy whispered out of the side of her mouth, “Put your sweatshirt on.” I broke into a laughing fit while I scrambled to find my Camp Erin t-shirt to change into. For the rest of the weekend, I stuck with sweatshirts, baseball caps, and tennis shoes.
By the time the campers arrived on Friday afternoon, my ensemble became the furthest thing from my mind. I had requested to be in Boys Cabin 1, which houses the youngest campers, aged 6 thru 8. To say that they were hyper is like saying that Oprah likes bread. My fellow Cabin Big Buddies and I did our best to wrangle them in for activities, but we were lucky if we got 7 out of the 9 kids to just sit in a circle. I was becoming more and more concerned with how we were going to get these energetic youngsters to go to bed at night. One plan was to try to tire them out throughout the day. Our cabin sat atop a steep, 200-foot hill, so every time we traveled to and from the cabin, I challenged the boys to a race. This didn’t seem to do much in terms of wearing the boys out, but I did manage to lose two pounds over the course of the weekend!
On Friday night, it took slightly less than two hours from the time that we had asked the campers to get ready for bed until they had actually fallen asleep. As soon as the last camper went down, I jumped into my bed and tried to get some much-needed rest. I had barely shut my eyes when a deafening racket filled our cabin and made me sit bolt upright. I initially thought that we were under attack, but it turned out to be one of our Cabin Big Buddies. He had warned us earlier in the day that he was a snorer, but I had never heard anything like it. For the next three excruciating hours, I tried to fall asleep, without much luck. Then, at around 2:30am, the snoring miraculously stopped. I wondered if I had perhaps gone deaf, but I ultimately didn’t care and I quickly fell asleep. Fortunately, nothing seems to wake up an 8-year-old boy, so most of our campers slept through the ruckus. By 7:30am the next morning, the boys were wide-awake and ready for the new day! I was exhausted, so I snuck outside and chugged a Diet Coke that I had smuggled in my pillow case the night before. Joking aside, the boys’ energy eventually became contagious, and it made the fun activities like the Friday night dance party much more lively and exciting.
Throughout the weekend, I was blown away by the campers’ fortitude, especially amongst my Cabin 1 boys. Starting with the Memory Board Ceremony on Friday night, the campers were regularly asked to share with the rest of the group who had died and the cause of death. My boys made it through these activities without a hiccup. I’m 31 and I still get choked up talking about my 88-year-old grandmother who died three years ago. Her death hit me in waves, and I can’t believe that these kids have had to go through that process at such a young age. It was powerful listening to the campers share their stories, and several of my Cabin 1 boys tugged on my arm every time they heard someone else who had experienced a similar death in their family. This is a crucial component to the weekend, as it allows the campers to see, maybe for the first time, that they are not alone in their grief.
On Saturday afternoon, our cabin set out on a grief hike, in which the boys explored various emotions and were taught coping strategies to deal with those feelings. Several of my campers stated that they were angry that they didn’t get to say goodbye to their loved ones, and we discussed what they would say to them had they been given the chance. Their responses were thoughtful and articulate, and it provided the boys with an opportunity to share something that they might not have been given the chance to say anywhere else.
There’s a brilliant scene in the second BRIDGET JONES movie in which Renee Zellweger complains about her boyfriend’s bad behavior to a group of Thai prisoners. After listening to a couple of the other inmates’ horror stories about their boyfriends, Bridget gains some perspective and realizes that she’s been “the world’s biggest fool.” I came to the same understanding this past weekend. I had been fretting because my interviews these past two months had not yet landed me a new job and I was getting impatient. After 24 hours at Camp Erin, I realized that my work problems paled in comparison to the obstacles that these young campers have had to endure. They have all lost someone incredibly close to them far too early in life. Though I’ve had multiple friends die unexpectedly over the years, I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had a family member die unnaturally. While it’s impossible not to get caught up in our own problems, camp reminded me that I have much to be thankful for and that my problems are rather minuscule in the grand scheme of things.
Overall, I had more fun this weekend than I’ve had in years, which seems like an odd thing to say about three days at a bereavement camp. I threw Frisbees, played basketball, raced 6-year-olds down a massive hill (I won), attended a dance party, petted miniature horses, colored, played kickball, sang camp songs, and made awesome friends. But most importantly, I met amazing kids and helped them deal with their grief. Camp provided me with an opportunity to utilize some of my talents that I don’t often get to use in my day-to-day life. I’m not a big fan of self-flattery, but I will admit that I received my fair share of compliments over the weekend regarding my ability to interact with the kids and keep them engaged. I only share that because I’m more proud of the feedback that I received this past weekend than any other professional accolades received to date. I truly hope that I had a positive impact on the kids’ lives because they certainly had one on mine.
I plan on staying actively involved in Camp Erin, and I encourage others who are considering volunteering to act on those impulses. I had contemplated volunteering at Camp Erin for 3 years before I finally signed up, and I’m now beating myself up for not doing it sooner. I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and volunteer at a children’s grief camp, but rather explore opportunities that play to one’s own strengths. Camp Erin taught me a lot, and I humbly offer the following takeaways, which I strive to implement in my everyday life:
- Disconnect from your phones and other electronic devices and reconnect with each other.
- Don’t take anything for granted, as life is a gift.
- Tell your family that you love them often.
- Talk openly about your loved ones who have died.
- Be there for each other. With the support of others, there aren’t any hurdles that we can’t overcome.
To preview the documentary made about Camp Erin, click this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTTpCmMCLLE