Original article published April 2007, in Washoe Family magazine.
In times of grief and sadness, there’s no better way to find comfort than breathing in fresh air and soaking up sunlight. That’s why for two weekends each year, 34 children, 16 adolescents, 25 volunteer facilitators, two nurses, a cook and two camp leaders gather in the great outdoors for bereavement camp.
In 2002, the Solace Tree was created as this community’s first non-profit organization to assist families and children with bereavement. When loved ones die, children and adults are faced with a tremendous range of feelings, which come and go at different times. These new emotions and the challenges of grief are diffcult pieces to fit into daily life, which is why we felt it was important to create a sort of escape, in the form of bereavement camp — some place to get away, if only for a few days, to become rejuvenated, to deal with feelings and to soak up that sunshine.
Our first camp, in the summer of 2006, was so popular that we, unfortunately, had to turn away 32 children and adolescents, simply due to a lack of space. We decided that from then on, we would hold bereavement camp two weekends a year, once in summer and once in fall.
These two camps — Camp Solace, held at majestic Glenbrook at Lake Tahoe, and Camp HUG at Eagle Lake — are both designed to help kids, ages 7 to 17, to grieve in a safe environment, as they learn healthy ways to deal with their loss, and to have fun, too. Campers talk with each other, and with loving, caring adults, about the people they’ve lost. Each of them has a story to tell and memories to share. Meanwhile, volunteers lead campers in a variety of activities, from arts and crafts to kayaking, singing, dancing and making s’mores by warm campfires, as they watch the stars twinkle and listen to the tranquil sounds of the lake.
And while all of this fills us with joy, our favorite part is seeing the faces of kids and parents for whom this camp has made such a huge difference.
“When I heard about The Solace Tree, I felt like I needed to get involved,” writes Troy, a Solace Tree volunteer who lost his own father when he was just 12. “I wish I had something like this when my dad died. Grief camp is by far the second most meaningful thing I do, besides volunteering for the Solace Tree. And it doesn’t hurt to stay in a nice cabin at a beautiful lake.”
All of us love watching these kids — who have had to deal with more sadness and loss than so many of us — lighting up when they perform skits, make new friends, or learn that they’ll have their own cabins to sleep in. For this one weekend at least, these kids can just be kids.
A letter written by the mother of one 12-year-old camper expressed the joy of camp better than I ever could: “My son really enjoyed Camp Solace. He has opened up some and I saw him cry for the first time since his dad died two years ago. thank you for making my son feel normal again, and not so alone.”
One of the greatest gifts I have received at our bereavement camps is being able to listen and watch our young campers smile, cry and laugh with each other as they travel down grief’s courageous journey. They realize, maybe for the first time, they are not alone.
Author of No Child Should Grieve Alone and two-time cancer survivor, Emilio Parga is the founder and executive director of The Solace Tree. He is also a bereavement consultant for Washoe County Department of Social Services and the Washoe County School District. He lives in Reno with his wife Keeli and son Hayden.
Author: Emilio Parga
–Life may not be forever but love is for always.