Camp offers peace, hope for grieving children

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The loss of a loved one can be hard for everyone, but especially for children. Camp BraveHeart offers these children a summer experience to navigate through their emotions while connecting with other youth who are going through similar experiences.

Deanna Upchurch, a grief support volunteer manager for Hope Hospice and Palliative Care Rhode Island, established Camp BraveHeart 10 years ago.

When her own daughters lost their father at the ages of 2 and 4, the eldest attended a similar camp.

“I saw so much value in children having a space to grieve outside of traditional counseling,” Upchurch said. “It is not a novel idea, but a worthy one.”

In 2000 Upchurch began a camp for grieving children called Angel Wings with Southcoast Health, which continues today, and then started BraveHeart in 2006 when she switched careers. The camp began with just over 40 campers and 20 volunteers but has grown to more than 120 campers and 50 volunteers over the last 10 years.

To celebrate the anniversary, the typically two-day summer camp was expanded to three days to allow a day for families to spend with their children. BraveHeart ran from August 3-5 this year at Camp Aldersgate in North Scituate.

The camp is offered for free to children between the ages of 4 and 17 who have lost a loved one, either a grandparent, parent or sibling. Alongside usual summer activities, campfires, kayaking and canoeing, as well as storytelling and campfires, campers have opportunities discuss and work through their loss through art therapy, remembrance circles and a final butterfly release at the end of the session.

“For many of our campers this is not something they can discuss in public. They may be the only one at their school that has experienced a loss. We promote expression, which often has to be subdued in the community. They are allowed to show and work through their emotions,” Upchurch said.

The youth involved realize they are not alone they can talk about their sadness, guilt and anger in a safe and open environment. Upchurch explained that for many campers BraveHeart is the first opportunity to talk about their experiences with loss.

Unlike many other grief camping experiences, BraveHeart allows campers to return from year to year, rather than being a one-time experience. Campers receive a huge benefit from seeing friends year to year, and connection with a common person.

Upchurch said, “There is a special bond and connection that develops between kids in the short time they are here because they understand what each other are going through.”

Initially, campers may be apprehensive and even reluctant to attend the camp, but after just a few short hours they quickly become comfortable. Upchurch said there is a huge development in campers on just that first day. Over an entire school year a child may not open up, but their willingness to express themselves grows after just a few days with us.

Youth can connect after just the first exercise of the camp that has campers blow bubbles rather than raise their hand when asked if they lost a grandparent or sibling.

“You see them looking around searching for people to connect with to see ‘who else is like me,’” Upchurch said.

Camp BraveHeart ends with a symbolic butterfly release and “how it [the camp] changes us.” Similarly, the release is symbolic of the campers releasing their grief and negative emotions.

“We want to remind our campers that, although this may be a bad time in their lives, they will not have a bad life, things will get good again,” said Upchurch.

Currently, BraveHeart has 100 percent free programming, including therapy, Zumba and drum circles, allowing the camp to grown from year to year. The hope is that BraveHeart can continue to grow over the next 10 years.

Many of the volunteers are parents or grown up campers themselves who saw what a benefit the program was. Others are hospice volunteers who have experienced loss themselves, and may have even accessed Hope Hospice’s grief counseling and feel the need to give back

“Our volunteers have gone through serious losses they know what loss is about and because of that are so passionate about connection with kids and helping them navigate their feelings,” Upchurch said, “This camp wouldn’t be the success it is without them.”

For more information on Camp BraveHeart visit www.hopehospiceri.org.

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