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Kids who have lost family members or caregivers can learn how to manage their feelings of grief at one of five Experience Camps in the country. This enthusiastic group attended the camp in Vista in 2018. Donations and grants allow campers to attend for free. Courtesy photo
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Experience Camp gives kids a positive outlet for grief

Seventeen-year-old Quintin Hartman was only 8 years old when his older brother, Earl Glover, died of complications from cancer. 

“He was a big mentor in my life,” Quintin said in a phone interview from his Redondo Beach home.

Luckily, his mother found a flier for Experience Camp, a weeklong getaway for kids like him who have suffered the loss of a parent, sibling or caregiver — kids who are trying to cope with the same feelings he had.

“I went the first year and fell in love with it,” said Quintin, who has attended Experience Camp for five summers. “I like the community. Everyone is so supportive. We are like brothers.”

Campers who attend Experience Camp do all the “regular camp things — swimming, games, arts and crafts,” explains Cara Allen, a licensed clinical social worker in San Diego who heads the teams of specialists that counsel children during their camp stay. 

The difference is that “one period a day is for bereavement activity. The kids can share their stories with other kids in their (cabin), and there are activities that help kids process.”

The rest of the time, “we keep kids busy and running around having a good time.”

Experience Camps are located in Maine, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Vista. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 1.5 million children are living in a single-family household because of the death of one parent. These children are at higher risk than their non-grieving peers for depression; anxiety; poor school attendance or dropping out; isolation; behavior problems; lowered academic achievement; drug and/or alcohol abuse; incarceration; or suicide.

After losing a parent, Allen says, 85 percent of children exhibit such symptoms as difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, worry, depression, bed-wetting and thumb-sucking. After a year, more regressive behaviors may fade, but other problems, such as lack of confidence and preoccupation with illness, are likely to continue. 

“Every kid at camp is different,” Allen says. “For some, it’s a fresh loss. Some were infants when the person died. For most, it’s living life without that person. The children can feel isolated and feel as though they are the only one who has gone through this. Coming to camp, they realize it’s not just me. It’s a place where they feel safe and understood and express whatever they are feeling.”

Quintin agrees.

“Camp helped organize my feelings,” he explained. “I miss my brother and love him, but I won’t let it control my life. Camp is responsible for my forward momentum.”

What would he say to others considering a week at Experience Camp?

“Just do it,” said Quintin, who wants to be a school counselor. “I hated camping and was scared to go, but in three days, I got over my fears. I want to emphasize that it’s an amazing place. When I’m down, I think about camp. It’s been an amazing force in my life.”

Camp Experience in Vista is looking for “energetic” volunteers (minimum age 19) to work during the boys’ session. Experience Camp offers a free week’s stay for children 9 to 17 years old. Girls and boys have separate sessions. 

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