They arrive brokenhearted. The children who come to Camp New Hope each summer have lost loved ones — mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, relatives. But after four days together, they leave with hope and a smile.
Earline Vann, director of the non-denominational day camp held at Lum Pond State Park in New Castle County, Delaware, knows a lot about helping kids through loss. At Delaware Hospice, which runs the New Hope program, she works with families and children dealing with death and grief. A certified thanatologist (CT), Vann says Camp New Hope gives children who’ve experienced loss healthy tools to cope and grieve.
“We give them permission to normalize their grief; we tell them in order to heal, their body needs to feel everything it’s telling them to feel,” says Vann. “Kids don’t understand they’re grieving; they have all kinds of feelings and think it’s abnormal. They may be angry, and I might say ‘it’s okay to be angry, it’s never okay to hurt yourself or others, but you’ve got express it and learn healthy ways to cope.'”
Each morning, the 50 or so campers are picked up by bus and on their first day divided into small groups headed by camp counselors. A healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner is provided and scheduled actives may include paddle boating, hiking, rock wall climbing, pet therapy, face painting, dancing, yoga, art, t-shirt making, and various kinds of special guests and creative games. At one point, there’s a panel discussion with a chaplain, funeral director, and nurse, who answer anonymously-submitted questions from the kids— anything the campers may have wanted to ask, or wonder about, related to death and dying.
Camp New Hope’s honest and compassionate environment, led by Vann and her staff, is why even reluctant teenagers end up coming and staying. This year the Camp had one of their largest teen groups yet.
“My rule is this,” says Vann. “If you come one day, you don’t have to come back— just give me one day. And in eight years I’ve only lost two. They come and hear the stories and then they know they’re in a good and safe place, and that most of our counselors have had loss themselves. So, the teens know it’s okay to cry and express what they’re feeling and by the end, most are saying they wish this was five days, or overnight.”
Many younger kids come to Camp New Hope as well — campers can be as young as 5 or 6. And many leave an impression. Vann remembers one very heartbroken boy who lost his brother to suicide. He was in a lot of pain. “The child had a soccer game and his bother had come, waved, and left before the game was over; then he went home and took his own life,” recalls Vann. “We helped the child to realize ‘your brother was saying goodbye, wanted to lay eyes on you, let your know you were doing a good job. It was the last deed he did and although he took his life, you must have been really special to him for him to come out to the game.'”
Vann says when they have campers who’ve lost loved ones to suicide, they try and help them understand there’s a mental health component that they didn’t know about, and that “the loved one was in so much pain, that’s how they wanted to be relieved of that pain, not because they wanted to leave you. And it’s okay to be angry with them. How do we celebrate that person? How can you help keep their memory alive?”
One of the ways the campers are encouraged to do this is by bringing in an item that belonged to, or reminds them of, their deceased loved ones. These items are placed in special memory boxes or bags and displayed on a table.
Maureen Manza, who has returned as a camp volunteer for eight years now and calls New Hope “amazing,” says little hearts that are breaking benefit from something visual, something they can think about. One activity that’s been particularly powerful involves a a red clay flower pot. The kids break one into pieces and then glue it back together again, adding glitter and decorations. “They can recognize it’s broken, but that it can now be put back together and still shine,” she says. “In life, this kind of stuff happens, but we can still be whole, we can still function like a flower pot, once the healing and time transpires.”
Like so many of the camp counselors, Manza has many stories that stick with her, moments that remind her why Camp New Hope is such a special place. She remembers a young boy who became really angry and started acting out. His counselor had concerns about him and by day three he had punched another kid and needed to be separated from his group. They brought him to Manza, who is now the camp nurse.
“I sat next to him; I wanted to make sure he didn’t run off somewhere — I couldn’t run after him if he did! — and he’s sitting there like a firecracker ready to explode, so bent up with rage. And we’re both sitting on the bench looking out and I put my hand lightly on his shoulder and say ‘I’m staying here. I’m not going anywhere. You don’t have to talk to me, my presence here is all about you.’ And at some point, the floodgates opened and he broke down in loud sobs. He had not cried over the death of his father and finally he was just able to let go.”
On the last day of camp, the children participate in a memorial service. Throughout the week in their small groups, they create presentations to honor their loved ones. Each child also makes an ornament which is hung on a tree planted for their deceased loved ones. Family members are invited and the children are allowed to say their loved one’s name over the loud speaker and go home with a program of the day’s service. Vann and Manza say it’s a powerful way to end the Camp New Hope experience.
Manza recalls an 18-year-old boy who’s mom had died; he had just graduated from high school two weeks before coming to camp. “This kid gets up and says, ‘I have to be honest, I felt I got short-changed by my mother’s death and not certain I wanted to be here, but what I learned from interacting with this six-year-old kid, who won’t even have his mom for any of his school years, is that it’s okay, we can move forward, we can have fun.”