A Summer Camp Where Grieving Kids Have Permission To Have Fun

Jul 6, 2017

Camp Evergreen has all the trappings of a typical day camp. The counselors greet the kids with the requisite amount of cheer at the beginning of each day. They go swimming every day after lunch. They do arts and crafts.

But all of the campers also have something in common that they’d rather not: They’ve all recently lost a close family member. In other words, it’s grief camp — and although, understandably, that does not sound like fun, kids and counselors alike end up finding some comfort in grieving together.

At the three-day camp, organized by Nashville-based Alive Hospice, almost every component of the session has a deeper meaning. Group music time? It’s really about helping kids find healthy ways to express their emotions. The dogs who visits their lodge? They’re therapy pets, trained to calm them down.

And, as chaplain Khette Cox explains to the 9- to 11-year-olds, their arts and crafts project for the day — making a paper maché mask — is not just a mask. It's also a metaphor for grieving.

"How could you feel on the inside?" she asks the group.

“Sad, angry, mad,” one camper says.

“Well, then, what do you show to the world?” she says. The unanimous response from the group: happiness.

“You just try to not be a party pooper,” says 11-year-old Nathan Caldwell. “If you're not going to be happy, then you're just going to be a bummer."

Caldwell’s dad died last year, and he's says he often feels like he has to hide his sadness or anger among peers. This is the first time he’s been in a place where everybody else understands how he's feeling.

“They won't judge you if you get emotional or get mad or anything,” he says.

This is a sentiment that campers express over and over: how frustrating it is to mourn for someone they love when no one else gets it, and how rare it is to be in a space filled with kids who have lost their “special person," as Sofia Moccaldi puts it.

Moccaldi says it's been hard to talk openly about her mother dying earlier this year, but “I felt really happy to know that everybody here had the same thing happen to them that has happened to me,” she says.

Some of their loved ones died in hospice, which is how their families know about the camp. Others died unexpectedly, and the children were referred by other family members or school counselors.

Alissa Scott, 9, says she heard about Camp Evergreen from a social worker after her grandfather died. She was skeptical. Her mom passed away in 2014, and Scott felt like she had already grieved fully.

"So when I think of camp, I’m thinking it’s going to put me in this place of being sad and depressed again," Scott says. "But it’s not. It's really just making me feel better."

Khette Cox, a chaplain with Alive Hospice, applies a paper maché mask on Nathan Caldwell's face. It's one of many arts and crafts activities at camp that has a deeper meaning.
Credit Emily Siner / WPLN

At another camp she went to, she told her bunkmates her story, and they didn't respond well.

"They said I had a weird and complicated life. But everyone here, I can say, ‘I've lost my mother and my grandfather,’ and they can say, ‘Oh, I've lost these people also.’ "

Even many of the camp counselors can say that. Cox, the chaplain, lost her dad when she was their age. Mia Webb, 17, is a first-time counselor whose sister also died when Webb was 9.  

"It's especially good for children — who are going through similar things that I went through when I was their age — to see a 17-year-old still running around and being happy and living life,” she says. “It’s going to be OK, and I hope that they can realize that.”

Camp has also been cathartic for her. On the first day, the group went around in a circle and shared their story, including the counselors. It was intense, Webb says. She usually doesn’t talk about her sister’s death to anyone, much less to a group.

"At the beginning of this, I said, ‘This is not something that I just tell people.’ One of the younger boys said, ‘It's ok, we're all grieving. We're all here for you,’ ” Webb says. “It was so beautiful."

Moments like this don’t tend to happen at other camps. But perhaps the most striking part of Camp Evergreen is how normal it does feel most of the time. Not everything has to have an explicit purpose, says Cox. Part of the power of the camp comes from just letting kids be kids.

“I think their parents are always amazed that they come back happy after a grief camp day,” she says.