Medford camp helps deal with sorrow.

Puppeteer Toni Griffith (left) talks about death to youngsters during a puppet show at Camp Firefly's eighth annual two-day bereavement session.
Puppeteer Toni Griffith (left) talks about death to youngsters during a puppet show at Camp Firefly's eighth annual two-day bereavement session. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

At Camp Firefly, a light for children facing losses

Posted: August 26, 2013

With their legs dangling off a wooden bench facing the lake, Cabin Six - the 7- and 8-year-old boys - took turns using a drum to tell a story about someone they lost.

Gabriel, 8, went first, hitting the drum in sequences of two. He told the group the sound reminded him of his younger brother, who still calls out "Dada" when shown pictures of his father, who died in May.

Dino, also 8, volunteered to go next and played the drum slowly first, then more rapidly. It was a rhythmic representation of the first time he caught a fish while out with his father, who has also died.

"So you and Dino have something in common, you both lost your dad," counselor Michelle Halliwell said as sullen faces nodded on the sunny, clear afternoon.

Moments later, a counselor pointed out a turtle, and the boys ran over to check it out, erupting in playful giggles.

Camp Firefly, for children who have recently lost someone close to them, held its eighth annual two-day overnight this weekend at Camp Matollionequay, a YMCA camp in Medford.

The camp is sponsored by Moorestown Visiting Nurses & Hospice, and this year, 45 children ages 7 to 14 attended from Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties.

Camp Firefly, named to represent a bright light in a dark situation, was born out of need, organizers said, after a similar South Jersey camp closed in 2004.

Over two days, campers canoe and swim, play sports and do crafts, as well as share memories and feelings associated with the people they've lost.

For many, it's their first time with others their age who share a similar loss.

Dishéa Lightfoot, 11, took a break from decorating signs for his cabin to talk about his grandfather, who died in February at 74. Dishéa helped take care of his grandfather, who had Parkinson's disease. "My routine was, I'd wait till everyone fell asleep and then I'd go crawl up on his bed and turn on the PS3 and we'd just talk," he said. "There are a lot of memories on his medical bed."

The incoming sixth-grader at Octavius V. Catto Community School in Camden said he wants to be a research scientist when he grows up - to try to cure diseases such as Parkinson's.

He sleeps with his grandfather's blanket every night. "I cover up in it and all the good memories rush over me," he said. "It's like a dream-catcher you can wear."

Dishéa speaks easily about his grandfather but says some of the campers are much more fragile.

That's why the camp is staffed with 35 volunteer counselors, including Tom Jennings of Pennsauken, who was 9 when he lost his father to stomach cancer.

"Back then, kids were just told to get over it," Jennings said. "It wasn't until my 40s that I started to feel this grief that I wasn't allowed to feel back then. This gives me a lot of hope that their lives can be different and that they have encouraging parents that recognize this is something that needs to be shared and talked about."

The camp is free, paid for through bake sales and charity events organized by Moorestown.

While splashing around in a lake one moment and writing a letter to a deceased loved one the next might seem disjointed, grief counselor Andra Vasko says it mirrors the grieving process.

"We go from sad activities to very happy ones and then back to sad ones. And in the course of someone's day, this is very much how grief is. You could be having a great time, having a belly laugh, and then, all of a sudden, longing for the person you lost."

The most moving part of camp is on Saturday evening, when each camper releases onto the lake an illuminated milk carton decorated in tribute to his or her lost loved one, Vasko said.

"The children come up with their cabin-mates and, one by one, launch their boats," Vasko said. "It creates such a sense of connection to their loss to see all these little lanterns lit up. In a way, we're saying goodbye again, but we're also saying hello again."


Contact Julia Terruso at 856-779-3876, jterruso@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @juliaterruso.

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