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June 15. 2013 10:24PM

This summer camp will let kids share grief, joy

When a new weeklong camp for girls opens in New Hampshire this summer, attendees will have more in common than just matching T-shirts. Circle of Fleur de Lis is for girls 9 to 13 who have lost a parent. It will be open from Aug. 18 to Aug. 23 at Fleur de Lis Camp for Girls in Fitzwilliam. The camp is part of the Circle Camps for Grieving Children program, which has offered a similar camp in Sweden, Maine, for the past 12 years.

The girls attend free of charge.

"I'm so excited that they are bringing this to New Hampshire because it's such an important piece of going through the process of grief," said Lisa Cramb-Dudley of New Boston, whose daughter Meghan has attended Circle Camp in Maine the last five years. "It's hard enough for a parent, but as a kid to deal with all of the feelings and emotion, it's very difficult. It's important for them to have other kids to talk to, who when they say they know how you're feeling they really know how they're feeling."

Circle Camps founder and president Sandi Welch said the camp offers attendees a wide variety of activities, including swimming, kayaking, arts and crafts and singing around the campfire.

"We also know the value of helping children talk about the losses in their lives," said Welch. "We bring them together so our campers can have summer days of childhood fun, meaning and bonding."

Welch said the program combines traditional overnight camp activities with an opportunity to do "grief work" in a caring setting, under the guidance of professional bereavement staff and surrounded by supportive peers.

Welch said she wanted to do something for children after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and immediately thought of setting up a summer program at Camp Tapawingo, which she enjoyed attending as a child. The camp's owner offered her free use of the site after the summer season; a private family foundation in Pittsburgh provided the funding; and Cathy Spear, a social worker who also attended Tapawingo as a kid, agreed to serve as director of camper services.

Carefully structured

The camp features the "circle" on opening day, at which kids talk about their parent, and the "rock ceremony" on the last day, when they lay memorial stones, each with a message to the deceased parent, around a newly planted tree. There is also a scavenger hunt, an Olympics event and a talent show.

"There is what I call a gentle theme of loss that runs through the program," said Spear. "It's allowing children to feel sad while offering them opportunities to have a good time."

Spear added: "Most kids feel as though they don't know anyone who has lost a parent, and it makes them feel isolated and different from their peers. And that makes it hard to talk about it with other kids.

"Here, even though the circumstances differ, every kid has been through something comparable, and that alone is healing for children. They learn to put what can be difficult emotions into words, and they hear other kids doing it, as well."

Families hear about the camp through social service agencies, hospices and word of mouth. To attend, girls need to be emotionally stable enough to be away from home for a week and to join in the program. At least six months has to have passed since the death. Spear said campers have lost parents to cancer, auto accidents, heart attacks, homicides, suicides and drug overdoses.

Coping with loss

Meghan and Alyssa Cramb of New Boston lost their father, David, five years ago this weekend when he died of a heart attack during an annual road race in 2008.

Both girls - Meghan was 9, Alyssa 14 - were running the race with their dad when he collapsed. He was 47.

"It was traumatic to say the least," said Lisa Cramb-Dudley.

Cramb-Dudley said Meghan was receiving services from the Good Grief program of Home Health and Hospice in Merrimack when she was referred to Spear and the Circle Camp program.

"We sent in an application," said Cramb-Dudley. "Cathy interviewed myself and Meghan over the phone, just trying to figure out if it's a good fit, and if she was ready, would she benefit from attending."

Meghan said she had some initial apprehension.

"The first trip there, I left early because I got homesick really bad," said Meghan. "I came home on Wednesday. But even if you are scared at first, we all usually leave in tears because we don't want to go home."

"Lots of times people try to do and say the right thing - they might say, 'I know what you're going through, I lost my hamster or my dog,'" said Cramb-Dudley. "Those are said with good intentions, but it's not the same."

Activities were helpful

Meghan said she appreciated the grief-related activities.

She noted one in which campers wrote messages to the parent they had lost, and the messages were weighted down, taken out onto a lake by boat and dropped into the water.

"We did a lot of things to remember the person who passed away," said Meghan. "We all knew that everyone there experienced the loss of someone, and that made it easier to open up and let them know we were there for them. They all knew how we feel."

Meghan said she has stayed in touch with the friends she made at camp, and she liked the program so much that she hopes to return in the future as a counselor in training.

Cramb-Dudley has since remarried and remains in New Boston with her husband, Mark Dudley.

Older daughter Alyssa is a sophomore studying pre-veterinary medicine at the University of Maine, while Meghan will attend Bishop Guertin High School this fall.

"They are both 'typical' teenagers in all aspects of their lives, but for the fact that they experienced and are ever aware of the loss of their dad," said Cramb-Dudley. "The peer connections they've made through Circle Camp are as integral to their well-being as family, friends and their communities. Maybe more so in some ways."

The program is entirely free to campers, and transportation is provided.

For referrals or more information, contact Lexy Heatley and Jennifer Maynard, co-directors, at circle@fleurdeliscamp.org, or Cathy Spear, licensed social worker and director of camper services, at cathyspear@circlecamps.org.

Information is also available at the Circle Camps' website, circlecamps.org.


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