Camp Offers Hope, Healing for Children Coping With Loss

The Miami Herald
Section: Neighbors EA
Edition: Final
Page: 4E

As Emilia Alvarez threw the two-page letter addressed to her father into the fire, tears filled her large green eyes and streamed down her cheeks.

The 15-year-old was taking the first step toward dealing with the loss of her dad, Robert, who died of cancer in May. Since then, Emilia has had a difficult time coping. ``My father and I were very close. I miss my dad so much,'' said Emilia, a sophomore at Michael Krop High School. ``When I threw the letter I felt like he was giving me hugs and kisses. I felt his love.''

Scenes like this are familiar to volunteers at Catholic Hospice's annual Camp Hope, a weekend bereavement camp for children ages 7 to 15, held this year Nov. 1-3 at the Girl Scouts' Camp Choee in Southwest Miami-Dade.

For eight years, Camp Hope has been helping children who have experienced a death in their family.

Catholic Hospice holds the camp annually with the help of a grant from the Green Family Foundation. Artist Romero Britto, of Britto Central, donated two-foot by two-foot canvasses for the children to decorate in their arts and crafts session.

This year, there were about 75 volunteers working through the weekend. Volunteers must go through a special training program that equips them with answers to questions that the children might ask.

Although one of Camp Hope's main goal is to get children to express their emotions about their loved one's death, fun is also a focus.

``It's actually a lot of fun. We teach them it is OK to have fun,'' said Dr. Eric Storch, the camp director.

The 52 boys and girls who attended this year were divided into four cabins. The Teddy group is made up of girls ages 7 to 11 and the Koalas are girls ages 12-15.

The 7- to 11-year-old boys are put into the Panda group and the Polar group is made up of boys ages 12 to 15.

During their two-day stay, the children take part in activities like art and music therapy. There is also pet therapy as well as swimming and sports.

The weekend kicked off with an icebreaker on Friday with music and dancing so that the children could get to know each other.

On Saturday, their schedule was packed with back-to-back activities. Victoria Petro, who is in the process of becoming a music therapist, led the children in playing instruments to express their emotions.

``Especially when people are dealing with strong emotions, music is nonthreatening and universal,'' Petro said. ``What makes us different from music teachers is that they hope to achieve a musical goal, we don't. We hope to achieve a nonmusical goal through the use of music.''

The children also met Beatrice, a fluffy white therapy dog.

During pet therapy, the campers told their stories about pets they have lost while petting the ever-so-calm Beatrice.

The children also compared the deaths of their loved ones and of their pets.

``The whole thing is about expressing emotions and you get that from the elders, the teenagers and the younger ones,'' says Bunny Feinberg, Beatrice's owner and human companion.

Some children, like 11-year-old Carlos Garcia, were hesitant about coming to Camp Hope.

``I thought it was stupid and I thought I was going to be sad and crying all the time,'' Carlos said. ``But then on Friday night it was fun with all the dancing and the music.''

Emilia, on the other hand, embraced it quickly.

``I thought it would be a good opportunity to find some new friends,'' she said.

The climax of the weekend came Saturday night when the campers wrote letters to their loved ones.

They got to write out all the things they never got to say.

``This is symbolic closure for them,'' said Nicolas Gross, a bereavement counselor with Catholic Hospice. ``A lot of them did not get to say good-bye and they were cheated from closure.''

Gross is one of 16 counselors who spent the night at the camp with the children.

Emilia shed many tears throughout the weekend but still remained optimistic about the camp and its purpose.

``I felt a little better crying,'' she said, ``just to express my feelings.''

HEALING THROUGH ART BARBARA P. HERNANDEZ/FOR THE HERALD Keondrea Millings, 10, works on a painting during an art therapy session at Catholic Hospice's annual Camp Hope, a weekend bereavement camp for children ages 7 to 15, held this year Nov. 1-3 at the Girl Scouts' Camp Choee in Southwest Miami-Dade. Story, X.

BARBARA P. HERNANDEZ/FOR THE HERALD MAKING MUSIC: Eric Greenwald, 11, leads a percussion band during a music therapy session at Camp Hope, a weekend bereavement camp for children at Camp Choee in Southwest Miami-Dade.