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Grieving Children Bond Over Shared Experiences at Camp Erin

Apr 01, 2018 09:35AM ● Published by Vanessa Orr

Gallery: Grieving Children Bond Over Shared Experiences at Camp Erin [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

Sometimes kids just need to be kids, and this is especially true when a child has lost someone significant to them, whether a parent, sibling or another loved one. Children who are grieving need a safe, caring environment to work out their emotions while being surrounded by others who understand what they’re going through—and that’s why there’s Camp Erin.

A partnership between Good Samaritan Hospice, The Moyer Foundation and YMCA Camp Kon-o-Kwee Spencer, this three-day, overnight camp provides children with a place where they can bond with other kids who have gone through the same experience. 

“While we have licensed professionals and trained volunteers on hand, the camp follows the peer support model because this bonding is so important—it really helps kids to realize that they’re not alone,” explained Camp Erin Director Heather Beachler, MA, NCC, CT. 

Campers’ days alternate between traditional physical activities, like zip lining, swimming and sports, and activities that help develop grief coping skills, including journaling, music and arts and crafts. “We follow the reconciliation needs of children, meeting them where they are and going from there,” said Beachler. 

“I joke at the volunteer training that it is not all ‘crying in the woods,’” she continued. “There is so much laughter and fun and running around—and the kids are exhausted by the end of the day.”

During the weekend, campers do discuss serious issues including how people die and what happens after death, among other topics. “We’re trying to help these children on their grief journey,” said Beachler, adding that the discussions are based on the trauma-informed care model. “We talk about where they’ve come from, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”

Children who don’t work through the grieving process or whose families choose not to discuss it with them may face problems in the future. “Grief is a natural and normal response to death as well as a lifelong process,” explained Beachler. “Through understanding, support and opportunities to express themselves, children can develop healthy coping skills.

“If they don’t work through these issues, it can lead to problems later in life, including mental health issues such as clinical depression, complicated grief and addiction issues," she continued. “Unaddressed grief makes them feel isolated and alone, both in their own families and around other children.” 

When families don’t discuss death or grieving, it can also lead to children treating their own families like this when they are grown, imparting unhealthy behaviors to future generations.

Who was Erin?

Major League baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen, a child advocate, started The Moyer Foundation in 2000 to provide comfort, hope and healing to children and families affected by grief and addiction. The couple established Camp Erin in 2002 in memory of Erin Metcalf, a teenager with liver cancer who they met through the 

Make-A-Wish Foundation.  

“The Moyers were really touched by the fact that despite having cancer, Erin was more concerned about how her siblings would deal with her death,” explained Beachler. “After she died, the Moyers came up with the goal of having a Camp Erin in every city with a major league baseball team; it is now one of largest bereavement camps in the country.”

Camp Erin came to Pittsburgh in 2011 and partnered with Good Samaritan Hospice, a mission of Concordia Lutheran Ministries, which had been running its own small bereavement camp for four years. They consolidated both camps into one, and they now welcome children ages 6-17 every year to Camp Erin, which is held at YMCA Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer in Fombell, PA, about 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh. There is no cost for children to attend the camp, which is funded through donations from individuals, organizations and a small grant from the Moyer Foundation, as well as money raised through a gala each year.

While first-time campers take priority, children who have attended Camp Erin before are able to return each year as long as space allows. “Previous campers are placed on a waitlist, and we evaluate each situation to make sure that camp is appropriate for them physically and emotionally and that it’s still a proper fit,” said Beachler, adding that roughly 100 children attend the camp each year. 

This year’s camp will be held June 8-10, and the deadline to apply is Saturday, May 12. Camp Erin is also looking for volunteers, and applications can be found on the website at www.CampErinPittsburgh.org.

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