Abington Memorial's Camp Charlie offers children a release from grief

Children who have lost a close relative hold hands as they begin a day at Abington Memorial Hospital's Camp Charlie.
Children who have lost a close relative hold hands as they begin a day at Abington Memorial Hospital's Camp Charlie. (MICHAEL VITEZ / Staff)
Posted: June 24, 2011

Forty-one children, all of whom had lost a parent or sibling, began every morning this week sitting in a circle. Little glass hearts were passed around. The children held them in their palms, joined hands, and recited:

"We weave our hearts and hands together in the circle of safety and trust, to support each other as we explore our dreams and hopes together."

This action each morning at Camp Charlie in a sense transported these children, freed them. The message was clear: You are here, together, with others like you. This is a chance to let down your guard, to open up, to heal.

Camp Charlie, sponsored by Abington Memorial Hospital on its Schilling campus in Willow Grove, is one of a handful of bereavement camps being held around the region this summer. Children at Camp Charlie came from city and suburb, and their parents and siblings had died in every conceivable way - mortar attack in Iraq, scuba-diving accident, murder, fire, heart attack, cancer. But their grief, and eventual healing, was something they had in common.

The theme this week at Camp Charlie, in its fifth year, is dream weavers. Children who have lost a parent or sibling, it turns out, have many similar dreams. Through music, crafts, and drama, the children were asked to share and discuss their dreams, act them out and discover that they could heal together.

During a music session, music therapist Michelle Balcer asked campers to introduce themselves and say how they were feeling. Most responded like this:

"My name is Julie, and I'm 7, and my dad died of a heart attack, and my favorite part of yesterday was the scavenger hunt, and I'm excited."

One boy said, "My name is Antonio. I'm 7, and my mom died, and my favorite part of yesterday was the treasure hunt . . ." His voice trailed off.

"Did you say how you're feeling?" the therapist asked.

"No, I don't want to."

Organizers stressed that it was not essential for children to share their innermost feelings. Some may not talk about their grief all week, but hang on to every word that others say.

To see that others like them feel better, that their lives go on, that they eventually heal, is a great comfort, organizers said.

Organizers also stressed - and it became evident - that camp was a happy place. The children loved the games and activities, just being around one another.

Adding the last adornments to her paper-bag puppet during drama class, Juliana Lupo, 8, described her excitement at seeing fellow camper Luca Smalley at her new school last September. They had met at camp last summer.

"I was surprised. I ran up to him and said, 'Hi, Luca!' " said Juliana, adding that it was comforting to know she was not the only third grader at Churchville Elementary School who had lost a father.

The heart attack that took Juliana's father last year was so sudden that she remembers trying to understand why it happened. It must have been something she did at the father-daughter dance two weeks earlier, she thought, that killed him. (She knows better now.)

In an art class down the hall, 11-year-old Sebastian Ramos-Mas was making sure the green-and-black puff balls glued to his puppet accurately resembled the fatigues his dad used to wear. A brown paper rifle hung from the paper soldier he'd made in the likeness of his father, who was killed during a mortar attack in Iraq when Sebastian was 5. A few feet away, his cousin Max Perez-Mas, 10, decorated his own puppet, having lost his father this past year.

Lorie Verderame, a hospice nurse, helped start a bereavement program for families at Abington in 2001 called Safe Harbor. This weeklong camp is a product of that program, which operates on an academic year.

Verderame has seen children arrive in her program who were considered to be behavior problems, loaded on medications. But their problem was grief. Once they got into her program and got support, their behavior improved and they no longer needed medication, Verderame said.

For her, the best measure of benefit is the number of children who keep coming back.

Phyllis R. Silverman, a Brandeis University professor who studies bereavement in widows and children, said research supported that assessment.

"It is pretty evident from my work and others' that talking to each other in a group is one of the most effective ways for children and adults to grieve, building on each other's experiences," said Silverman, coauthor of A Parent's Guide to Raising Grieving Children: Rebuilding Your Family after the Death of a Loved One.

An Arizona State University study published last year in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that children who went to family bereavement programs were less likely to be depressed as they got older.

Becca Douglass, 20, has been attending Camp Charlie since it began, and returned this week as a volunteer counselor in drama. When she was 11, she woke up one morning and found that her father had died in his sleep.

"It's really cool to be able to spend a week with people who understand and get it and not have weird looks," said Douglass, a student at Millersville University. "Safe Harbor has done so much for me, I wanted to give back."

The highlight of Camp Charlie is Friday afternoon, when surviving parents, other relatives, and friends are expected to come, and the campers put on a show.

It should be the culmination of their art, music, and drama preparations all week, and camp organizers said this would be where it all came together, where the children would talk about the parent who died and how they felt. It should be a very emotional afternoon for the parents, so happy to see their youngsters sharing and healing - some for the first time.

Said Verderame, the nurse: "We go through a lot of tissues."


Contact staff writer Juliana Schatz at 215-854-4193 or jschatz@philly.com.

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