Of Helping Children Cope with Loss
“I think camp gives distressed kids a break from the grief, and a chance to take your mind off of everything that’s going on back home.” Now in her 30s, former camper Dawn Kron reflects on the loss of her mom in the 1990s and her experience at Katerpillar Kids Camp, a special grief camp for children and teens who are grieving the death of a loved one, during that tough time. “I remember being sad when I went to camp, about 10 months after my mom died. I remember group sharing time, and feeling a sense of comfort to know the other kids knew what I was going through,” said Kron, now a hair stylist living in Knoxville. “I think I was also dealing with a lot of anger, but as a 10-year- old, couldn’t express it and didn’t know what to do with it.”
The feeling of being given a mental and emotional pause, for both the grieving child and the bereaved family, is echoed by Kallee Harvey, a 24-year-old nursing student who attended camp as a youth. Harvey has been a certified nursing assistant for the past four years at Parkwest Medical Center and is currently pursuing a degree as a licensed practical nurse.
Since her experience at camp when she was a third grader, Harvey has returned as an adult volunteer to Katerpillar Kids Camp for the past six years in hopes of making other children feel as special as she did at that vulnerable time.
“As an adult, I try to pass that on. I want to give these kids a break from what’s happening,” said Harvey. “This camp really gives caretakers a break from the worry of trying to be perfect, and it gives the kids a weekend of fun while also learning how to process their loss.”
Harvey highly recommends the camp to parents who are trying to connect with their young children and teens.
“Being young has its challenges. It’s even more difficult when you add the hardship of losing someone close to you. Kids don’t usually know how to process all of the emotions that they have when grieving and can often feel punished and alone. The volunteers and staff give them tools to really understand and help them experience each of these emotions, all while being with others who are going through the same situations.”
A Retreat with a Purpose
Many campers attend because they lost a parent, but campers who have lost any member of their family or a friend can participate. The weekend camp is a free community service sponsored by Variety Children’s Charity and coordinated by Covenant Hospice.
“This camp provides a safe space for campers to know they are not alone in what they are going through,” said Katie McLaughlin, manager of volunteer and bereavement services for Covenant Hospice and coordinator of Katerpillar Kids.
“Camp was started 25 years ago because the social workers who were providing grief support for adults saw a need for kids facing loss of their loved ones. That’s how Katerpillar Kids Camp was developed.”
Grief Therapy in a Canoe
Campers are divided into groups based on age and grade. For two days, they participate in camp- style activities: they go on hikes, play games, and participate in arts and crafts. At the same time, they learn coping skills and share time with other children and teens who are dealing with grief from having lost a parent, sibling or best friend.
“We play music, do crafts, and lead different activities you’d find at summer camp. The difference here is that we add in a grief therapy element to every activity, whether the camper realizes it or not,” McLaughlin said.
“Take canoeing, for instance– having to communicate with their teammate to not tip the boat over, realizing they’re not alone in the boat, and in order to steer to shore, they must trust and rely on others.”
A Sense of Community
According to McLaughlin, each activity can lead to new discoveries, even if it’s a song or a puppet show.
“We all need a sense of community; we all need someone who can relate to us. Think of grief support for adults who are searching for others going through something similar. It’s the same for kids, but they may not know how to ask for it,” McLaughlin said. “When children meet peers who have had a similar experience, they realize they’re not alone.”
Activities directly related to grief therapy may include having campers write a letter to the loved one they’ve lost, playing a game that will help them share feelings at camp or at home, and creating a memory box in honor of the loved one. These activities are led by group leaders trained in social work or have a background in supportive care. “We see a transformation after just 24 hours, and even more important, they see it in themselves,” said McLaughlin. “They leave Katerpillar Kids Camp with hope their grief can get better. It may not go away, but they can learn coping methods of how to deal with it – their ‘new normal.’
“Our purpose is to provide them tools to cope, and to know they’re not alone. And for us, they are the picture of hope to keep going.”
Coming Full Circle
Twenty-five years later, Dawn Kron’s memories of Katerpillar Kids Camp are still with her.
“I make conversation with all my clients,” she said, and when she realized McLaughlin was involved with Katerpillar Kids Camp, she told her, ‘I went there when I was little!’ I don’t know why, but meeting her now was like everything had come full circle. It made me so happy to think about Katerpillar Kids again after all these years.”
About Katerpillar Kids Camp
Who is it for?
- Katerpillar Kids Camp is a special grief camp for children grades 1-12 who are grieving loss through death of a loved one.
What will my child be doing?
- Depending on each child’s individual needs and abilities, children participate in fun camp games and activities including canoeing, arts and crafts, puppet shows, music, ropes course and
- Staff members at Camp Wesley Woods lead outdoor activities while trained volunteers and clinical group leaders are equipped to lead group times for
Where does it take place and what is the cost?
- Camp is free!
- Katerpillar Kids Camp is held at Camp Wesley Woods in Townsend, Tennessee. Camp times are Saturday from 7:30 m. – 6:30 p.m. and Sunday from 7:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
- Optional bus transportation to Camp Wesley Woods is provided free of charge from Fort Sanders West (located at Pellissippi Parkway and Kingston Pike).
Registration Now Open!
Katerpillar Kids Camp:
Sept. 14 & 15, 2019
Camper Application Deadline:
Sept. 6, 2019
To register visit: www.katerpillarkidscamp.org