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Children have fun, learn to grieve at special camp

For 16 young people, Camp Courage was a day to play and forget the cares of the world. But just as important, it was an outlet for expressing and talking about feelings in the wake of losing a loved one.

Isabella Montano, 12, lost her grandpa in January. She has fond memories of visiting his home in Selma and playing checkers. “He was fun and funny too, “ she says.

The camp was the vision of SECU Hospice House manager Tami Baumbaugh and hospice social worker Murray Dees. While the hospice program of Johnston Health offers bereavement services to families, it had never included an emphasis on children.

“Children tell us they don’t like showing grief because it makes parents sad or upset, “ Baumbaugh said. “So they keep it bottled up.”

The camp, which was held in July at Camp Mary Atkinson on N.C. 42 East, mixed activities with group therapy led by trained, experienced counselors.

By the end of the day, Isabella was feeling much better. “This was very helpful. I loved it, “ she said before skipping off to join a friend in a canoe ride on the lake.

Several adults volunteered to help out with the camp.

Ashley Franey, a psychotherapist, designed an exercise in which campers led a horse through a grief journey they built using hula hoops and noodles.

Others made donations to the camp. A convenience store made sandwiches for lunch. A Boy Scout troop provided all of the art supplies.

The director and camp staff at Camp Mary Atkinson volunteered to lead the activities, which included archery, crafts and canoeing. Three counselors from Johnston County Schools led the therapy sessions.

At the end of the day, parents joined their children around a campfire. One by one, they tossed into the flames a letter they had written during the day to their lost loved ones. Parents wrote letters too.

“It summed up the emotions and feelings they had talked about throughout the day, “ Baumbaugh said. “The burning letter was a visual of letting go and saying final goodbyes.”

Afterward, parents and guardians said the camp experience would help them reconnect with their children, Baumbaugh said.

“The kids learned how to deal with loss and grief, “ she said. “Counselors came away impressed with how mature and resilient kids can be. This was a wonderful experience for us all.”