Camp Manitou in Oakland, Maine, appears to be your typical summer camp, until you learn why each camper is there.
Each summer, for one week, the camp hosts an “Experience Camp,” which is a free program for boys ages 9-16. Every camper at the experience camp shares a common, and painful bond: they have lost a loved one.
“They have the opportunity to just be with kids who get it,” said Sara Deren, the camp’s executive director.
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Some of the campers have lost parents, others have lost siblings or grandparents.
“It’s fun coming back year after year, and even the parts where we’re talking and it’s sad, people are there for you,’ said Dylan Grantham, a 15-year-old camper from Nashua, New Hampshire. He started coming to the Experience Camp when he was 12 years old, just after his father died.
“It was really soon after he died, and I was still a mess when I came,” he said. “But learning to cope and live with it, and seeing these kids, it gave me hope to live my life.”
The campers do all the traditional activities: from water sports, to archery, to singing songs and having campfires. But they also do meaningful, emotional work together. Every day, campers either complete bereavement activities, or gather in “sharing circles,” where they share pictures and stories about the person they have lost.
“It’s cool to know that you can know people who are suffering through the same pain that you are,” said Liam Ramsey, a 9-year-old camper from Warwick, Rhode Island. It’s his first year at the Experience Camp, and he is learning how to cope with the death of his father and grandparents.
“It helps me by getting all of my feelings out,” he said.
Some of the boys find it easier to open up to their peers, than a therapist or counselor.
“Boys need to play before they can talk,” said Deren. “The boys are bit slower to warm up, so giving them this type of environment, where they can integrate play and grief is so powerful for them.”
Experience camps are also held in New York, California, and Georgia. Deren said they are looking to add a site in the Midwest, and offer a program for girls at a camp in Smithfield, Maine next year.