Camps Address Kids' Emotional Needs

Fun and support help kids cope with grief, military service and HIV/AIDS.

In the past decade, camps designed to help children cope with specific types of emotional challenges have sprung up nationwide.

Hospices and service agencies run camps for grieving children. Programs such as Operation Purple, run by the National Military Family Association (NMFA), and the American Camp Association' s Operation Summer Camp offer emotional relief to military children. Other camps serve children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.

A believer in the many benefits of the traditional summer camp experience, the late, great actor Paul Newman in 1988 founded the first Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. Today, a global network of Hole in the Wall Camps allow children to forget about being sick and have fun just being a child.

Therapeutic Value

Double H Ranch, a Hole in the Wall Camp in Lake Luzerne, NY, has served Delaware Valley children since 1992. "Each child comes in with a different comfort level. Many of them have never been told, 'Yes you can!'" says operations director Jacqui Royael. "At camp, we build a safe and trusting environment so that any child can feel success at any level. For some children that means climbing a rock wall, for others that may mean finding the courage just to put on the helmet," she says.

The Sierra Club supports free Operation Purple camps for military kids across the country as a national partner of NMFA. "Sierra Club understands the therapeutic value of the outdoor experience," says Sue Edmonds, CEO of South Mountain YMCA, which runs an Operation Purple camp at the Y's Camp Conrad Weiser in Berks County, PA.

The camp environment can be challenging and comforting. At residential and day camps, children with specific emotional needs work out their feelings through physical and artistic activity — the same land and water sports, arts and crafts, nature experiences and evening activities that can be found in any good camp program.

Fun and Support

Many camps blend traditional activities with educational, therapeutic or memorial activities to help children better understand their situations, cope with anger, make new friends who can share their experiences and find hope for the future.

Camp Dreamcatcher, founded by psychotherapist Patty Hillkirk, provides a safe, supportive, fun place for children whose lives have been touched by HIV/AIDS. Kids ages 5-17 enjoy horseback riding and go-kart racing, as well as specialist-led sessions in art, movement and music therapies.

Camp Saginaw in Chester County, PA provides the facilities, food and specialized camp activity staff for the free, one-week Dreamcatcher program; the camp provides more than 260 professional staff and trained volunteer counselors to work with about 160 children from the Mid-Atlantic region.

In Medford Lakes, NJ, YMCA Camp Ockanickon partners with the Center for Family Services to offer Camp Bright Feathers, a free, week-long residential camp for HIV/AIDS- impacted children. "The camp's goal is simply to let kids be kids," says Jen Segelken, Camp Ockanickon's Day Camp Director. "Many kids return year after year. And for many, Camp Bright Feathers is their only camp experience — one they look forward to all year long."

Military Kids Escape Fears

For six summers, Operation Summer Camp has matched military children with ACA-member camps that donate "camperships" for up to eight weeks of day or overnight camp. David Schreiber, director of Camp Timber Tops, an overnight camp for girls in the Poconos, donates a full month of camp each year. He says a camp where everybody is accepting and smiling can transform a child who may be living with constant fear when a parent is deployed.

Lt. Col. Scott Hreso, a single father of four, says that Operation Summer Camp helped his children attend camps as diverse as Wave Week, a community service and leadership program; Camp Netimus for Girls; and International Gymnastics Camp, where his 15-year old daughter  made a lot of friends, improved her technical cheerleading skills and got a real morale boost."

A fighter pilot for 30 years, Hreso's children have lived through his deployments many times. "Because she was with other, non-military kids, camp was a good way for my daughter to forget about her family problems, learn a lot, and feel like a regular kid," he says.

Operation Purple camps are one-week programs only for children of active military and reserves. Programs may differ, but all Operation Purple camps share elements that include an opening campfire, on-site mental health consultants, a community service project and a military theme day.

"When you combine all the branches of the military, the color you get is purple," says the YMCA's Sue Edmonds. "Operation Purple camps give children a sense of camaraderie by blending children from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and the commissioned corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Public Health Service. They all know what it's like to have a family member in harm's way."

Shared Experience

At bereavement camps, which can range from a day to a week at an overnight camp, children express their grief through therapeutic art, music, dance, drama, journaling, and photography. They enjoy camp activities with other children who have lost a loved one, yet engage in memorial activities. Programs range from free to $75; at camps with fees, sibling discounts and scholarships are often available.

For More Info
American Camp Association Keystone Section (Operation Summer Camp)

Camp Erin, The Moyer Foundation,

Double H Ranch

The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp

Operation Purple

Area bereavement camps include Delaware's Kidds Kamp, run by Supporting Kidds; Abington (PA) Memorial Hospital' s Safe Harbor Camp Charlie; Keystone Hospice's Keystone Kids Camp in Flourtown, PA; or the Center for Loss and Bereavement's Camp Millie in Worcester, PA.

When Steven Bernstein, a former television sports commentator who now directs Diamond Ridge Camps in Jamison, PA, learned that pitcher Jamie Moyer was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, he got in touch with the Moyer Foundation. Founded by Jamie and his wife Karen in 2000, the foundation funds Camp Erin, the largest network of tuition-free, residential bereavement camps in the U.S.

Moyer is originally from Souderton, PA, and the parents of the late Erin Metcalf, for whom the camp is named, are originally from the Delaware Valley. Bernstein and the Moyer Foundation partnered with Penn Wissahickon Hospice to bring Camp Erin to Pennsylvania in 2007. Diamond Ridge Camps donate thefacility, food and staff for the entire week.

During the Camp Erin week, traditional camp activities are layered with expressive arts and memorial activities designed to help children remember and honor their loved ones. Each child decorates a luminary bag with a message to the person being remembered. At the week's end, the bags line the path to a closing luminary ceremony at the lake.

After attending the camp, Tyriece, a 13-year-old boy from Philadelphia, wrote, "I had a wonderful time at Camp Erin. It helped me to understand that it's okay to talk out your feelings and to write things down. Thank you for letting me attend this camp. Camp Erin helped me to understand that I am not the only one in the world who lost someone."

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Categories: Camps & Classes