April 19, 2009 in Idaho Voices

Children’s camp offers help after loved one’s loss

Patty Hutchens

Losing a loved one can be a devastating experience for anyone. But for children, the grieving process can be especially confusing, scary and isolating.

There’s help in Bonner and Boundary counties for youth who are undergoing this journey. For 12 years, Bonner Community Hospice has hosted a Summer Kids Camp for any child ages 8 to 17 losing a loved one.

Bambi Lassen, a licensed clinical social worker and a volunteer director for Kids Camp, said the camp is open to any child, regardless of whether their loved one received hospice services.

The child’s loss does not have to involve a parent or other a family member.

“Some children have a next-door neighbor who they were close with and some have lost a teacher,” Lassen said. Whatever role the person played in the child’s life, the loss is real, and the camp provides an opportunity for kids to process their grief.

This year the camp takes place from June 19 to June 21 in Clark Fork. Kathryn Cooke, the volunteer and bereavement coordinator for Bonner Community Hospice, said it can take up to 20 kids. There is no charge to attend.

“We are funded through grants, and if there is a shortfall Bonner General Hospital covers the rest,” Cooke said.

A weekend of fun and play therapy, the camp allows children a chance to express their feelings in a variety of ways.

“They learn that all the feelings that go along with grief – including shock, denial, sadness and anger – are all OK and are normal,” said Lassen, who said children typically have a difficult time opening up about death.

Many hours go into the planning of the weekend so that the experience is both fun and therapeutic.

“Trained therapists played a crucial role in developing the program,” said Lassen, who is in her fourth year as a camp volunteer.

The camp’s location affords kids the opportunity to go on nature hikes, play organized games, and play in large open areas.

There is usually one volunteer for every one to two children.

If a child’s loss is recent, within about two months, adults should evaluate whether camp is appropriate, organizers say.

“They are already processing so much,” Lassen said. “We are careful to protect the children to make sure it is the right time. If it’s not then we invite them back the next year.”

At the end of the weekend the facilitators ask the kids to share something they have learned at camp. Many children say they have learned to deal with their anger, learned they are not alone or just finally felt they had someone who would listen to them, Lassen said.

“And some will say they learned a new song or learned to play volleyball,” said Lassen, who adds that many of the kids may not realize the benefit of the therapy until later. But the therapists know the children are learning how to express their grief.

“It’s a magical process that happens (over the weekend), and there are a lot of changes we see,” said Lassen, who in her practice specializes in working with children and families and has extensive experience in play and art therapy. “Kids become more confident with themselves, show an increase in self-esteem and have a sense of acceptance that they are not the only ones going through it (the grieving process). It gives them hope that they can move forward.”

The grief process extends far beyond the weekend, and organizers take steps to ensure that children take with them tools to help them later.

In the past, for example, volunteers have given children pencils as a reminder that they can write their feelings in a journal or a ball to bounce when they feel angry.

As for Lassen, she said volunteering at Kids Camp is an experience she treasures.

“I feel honored to be able to be with the children and help them in their grief process,” she said. And while she emphasizes that the camp is not about her, Lassen said she too learns a lot.

“Every year I learn something new from the children that not only affects my life but also how I deal with families in the future,” Lassen said. “Everyone’s path is unique.”

To sign your child up for Bonner Community Hospice Kids Camp, contact Kathryn Cooke at (208) 265-1185.

Contact correspondent Patty Hutchens at pattyhutchens@yahoo.com.

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