2020 marks a very exciting milestone for State of the Heart Care’s Camp Encourage – its 20th year of camp!
State of the Heart Care’s grief camp, first known as Camp BEARable, started in 2000 with 15 campers. It has since been renamed Camp Encourage and has helped over 800 total children on their journey through grief. We wanted to reflect on how camp has transformed over the years, so I recently spoke with Pam Pohlman, Social Worker at State of the Heart Care for 30 years, on her experiences while helping with camp through the years.
Pam’s Story with State of the Heart’s Grief Camp
Pam began helping at camp about 18 years ago as an adult buddy. Each child is paired with a buddy during the weekend to offer one on one support and encouragement. She then became a group leader, and now serves as camp social worker. When speaking with Pam I could see the passion she has for camp as her eyes lit up with the many memories she wanted to share. I asked her why she was first interested in helping with camp, and she said, “As a social worker I spent time with children during the dying process of their loved ones and could see such a need for that kind of bereavement follow up after their loss. As time has gone on, participating in camp has also become a way to honor my mother.” Pam’s mother knew the importance of bereavement care, as she lost her own mother (Pam’s grandmother) when she was only 7 years old. She often told Pam that there were no bereavement programs for children back then, and always encouraged Pam to continue her work at camp and to “help as many children as possible” because she could see how great a benefit it would have been for her and knew how helpful it was to all the children now.
New Activities. Same Life-Changing Experience.
Pam shared that many aspects of camp have remained the same over time, including a traditional camp song, as well as a campfire night which Pam said, “is very peaceful as we sit together and watch the fire. This often leads to the kids opening up and expressing their feelings.” There have been changes over the years in some activities, but they’ve all been very helpful in accomplishing the mission of Camp Encourage. Different activities over the years have included trust exercises, nature hikes, fishing, jumpy houses, caricature artists, creating cookbooks, and having water balloon competitions. Some activities have become tradition, such as the classic car clubs that come and visit. One of Pam’s favorite moments is when the kids get to ride in the cars because she “loves seeing the huge smiles indicating pure delight in every face, which represents a respite from their current life challenges.” Another tradition of camp is a takeaway item that the children can treasure as a memento of their time at camp. These include crafts the children make, such as calming jars and memory boxes. Volunteers also have made special items for the children each year. In the beginning, they sewed handmade teddy bears. Last year, a group called The Blanketeers made enough blankets for each child to receive one for use during camp and to take home with them.
Along with the purely fun activities are more serious exercises designed to offer guidance and healing through grief the children may be experiencing. This includes a session called the panel of experts. The panel is usually comprised of a physician, chaplain, and funeral home employee, and gives the children a chance to speak with and ask questions to these professionals. Pam has been a moderator at the panel for a few years and shared that the campers are very insightful and ask amazing questions. Another important exercise is the letter release. Each year campers are encouraged to write letters to the loved ones that they have lost. There have been different ceremonies held with the letters over the years, including a balloon launch where the letters were attached to balloons and then released outside. More recently, they’ve done a water letter release ceremony. The children still write a letter to their loved one and come forward individually to drop their letters in a bowl of water, dissolving the letter. These ceremonies offer closure in a safe place for the children to express their feelings where they won’t be judged.
Shared Grief and Loss Experiences Provides Powerful Healing
Pam reflected that one of the most healing and powerful activities occurs on the last day of camp each year. The camp memorial service is held before the campers are picked up by their loved ones. The children’s caregivers come early for a session providing education on what their child has experienced at camp, encouraging them to use this information at home as they interact with them. The caregivers then attend the memorial service, where each camper walks forward in the group and says the name of the loved one they have lost. Pam shared that this benefits the child and also the child’s family members when they hear the name as “it validates their shared grief and loss experience.”
According to Pam, perhaps the most important aspect of camp over the past 20 years and continuing into the future, is that it normalizes the children’s grief experiences and they realize they are not alone. They see that other kids are experiencing similar feelings and concerns and can relate to one another. “I am always amazed at the strength and resilience shown by the kids after experiencing such a traumatic and life-changing event of losing someone special.” When asked what her favorite memory from camp has been, Pam shared that it would be regarding two seven-year-olds, one who lost their dad and one who lost their mom-both in tragic accidents. Pam was the group leader that year and remembers that both were very quiet in the beginning; they didn’t feel comfortable sharing their stories. At one point during the weekend they had an opportunity during an activity apart from the larger group to open up and support one another through their losses. That created a wonderful bond throughout the rest of their camp experience. And when they returned the following year, they remained friends.
Pam hopes to continue her work at camp each year and wants others to know what a meaningful and fulfilling experience it is, highly recommending it to others who would like to volunteer, as there is always a need for adult buddies who have a heart for supporting children during their grief journey.
Camp Encourage at Home – 2020 Virtual Grief Camp
This year’s camp will look a bit different. In the best interest and safety for our families, volunteers, and staff involved with camp, we are hosting Camp Encourage virtually this year! “Camp Encourage at Home” will be July 10-12 and our camp staff are hard at work preparing activities for the campers, ensuring they still have a special camp experience! Camp Encourage accepts children ages 6-15 who have experienced the death of a loved one, no matter their affiliation with our hospice care.