At Camp Hope, losing a loved one is a shared and understood experience. Most kids have lost a parent, but some have lost a grandparent, a sibling, an extended family member or even a friend. Children spend the weekend surrounded by other kids their age that truly understand what they are going through.
Bereavement impacts many children in Kentucky. One in ten children have experienced the death of a parent or sibling by age 18, according to research-based nonprofit Judi’s House/JAG Institute, which supports grieving children and their families. The group reports that 101,000 children in Kentucky are experiencing bereavement at any given time.
Camp Hope, funded by Bluegrass Care Navigators, allows children to express their grief in a comfortable environment. The camp, held in both Central and Eastern Kentucky, welcomes youth ages 7-16 and is open to children who have suffered different types of loss. It is available not only to those children whose loved ones were cared for by Bluegrass Care Navigators, but to all children in the community.
Many families arrive apprehensive, wondering if the overnight camp will consist of children crying all weekend. But the event invites them to have fun while dealing with their pain. “Our purpose for camp is to provide a safe and fun environment for kids. To let kids connect with other kids who have had a similar experience. They can identify their feelings and learn coping strategies and just express their grief,” says Holly Bender, a Bereavement Counselor with Bluegrass Care Navigators. Bender oversees the camp along with another Bereavement Counselor, Kristen Hamilton.
One of those campers was Maggie Twaddell, who attended the camp last year. She was 8 years old when she lost both her grandparents a few months of each other. David Johnson, her grandfather, passed away in January 2018 from an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her grandmother, Linda Johnson, passed away in April 2018 of pancreatic cancer. They were both under the care of Bluegrass Hospice Care.
Christine Twaddell, Maggie’s mother, said, “You could tell she was really sad. We had lived with them, we had moved home while my husband was in the army. She had to watch them deteriorate, which I know had to have been hard on her.” Christine met with Holly, who told her about Camp Hope. After talking with Maggie about the camp, she thought Maggie seemed eager. “I don’t think she really knew what to think about it or what the purpose was. I had told it was for kids who lost someone and for them to be able to talk about it. She was like, ok.”
In Central Kentucky, Camp Hope has been held for the last three years at the Life Adventure Center in Woodford County. Located on over 570 acres, LAC runs year-round camps and retreats for people affected by trauma. Activities they provide include equine assisted learning, climbing and challenge courses and canoeing.
“We partner with Life Adventure Center and since it is an adventure course, they have low ropes, high ropes, canoeing and equine there. We pair these physical activities with grief components so with each activity, we tie in a message to it. So when we are doing a low ropes course where there is an obstacle in the way, you have to work together in order to overcome that obstacle and then we tie in ‘what kind of obstacles have you had in the grieving process?’” Bender said. “We could not do this without LAC. They have everything that we need and the people are so qualified.”
Trained staff and volunteers help the children discuss their experiences with peers. For some campers, it’s their first time ever talking about their loss. “The main components we hit on are sharing stories. Everyone has an opportunity to share their story, about who their person they lost was and how and when. We also share about their life as well, their relationship with their person. So we are sharing memories as well,” Bender added.
A butterfly release ceremony presented by Bereavement Counselor Peggy Williams and Chaplin Dave Carper, takes place at the end of camp. “At camp, the obvious theme of change is woven into the weekend in many ways. It is reinforced at the closing ceremony with a story about a caterpillar’s change into a butterfly being read aloud, followed by a chaplain’s reflection on the story and the campers weekend experiences and then the butterflies are released.”
Two weeks after the camp, families are able to come back together and reconnect. They bring their family members, and everybody works together decorating a memory stone in memory of their loved ones. Bender said, “What is really sweet is that they bring things from home that belonged to their person and put those in the stone. And they are so meaningful. It is a time to share, to share about their person’s life and who they were and why these things are meaningful to them.” The reunion wraps up with a slideshow of all the photos that were taken during camp. Campers are even given a team photo that they can take home with them.
The reunion is a follow up process as well. “Now that these kids have started talking, if they would like individual or family counseling, we offer that,” says Bender.
Of Maggie’s camp experience, Christine said, “She loved it. She had so much fun. She was excited about showing me around, and excited about me seeing all the things that she did. She still talks about it a lot. She had always been a little timid, but now she is ready to jump in and do all the fun things. It helped her with her courage.”
If Camp Hope Is Right For Your Child
The 2019 Eastern Kentucky Camp will be held August 3 at Four Star Village Barn and Lake Venues in Redfox, Ky. To register, call Susan Houston or Pam Dixon at 606-439-2111.
The Central Kentucky Camp Hope is held annually in spring at the Life Adventure Center in Versailles, Ky.
If your child needs support through the grief process outside of Camp Hope opportunities, please call 855-492-0812 to be connected with counselors who can help.
How to help
Free for participants, Camp Hope is supported by philanthropic donations made to Bluegrass Care Navigators from the community. If you know of a child who has experienced a loss, please call
To support Bluegrass Care Navigators and their initiatives, go to www.bgcarenav.org/donate.