RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - When you think of summer camp, you think of fun and games. But it needs to be more than that for a child who has experienced a death in the family.
That's where Comfort Zone Camp comes in, making the experience something inspirational.
"As much as we do activities that help the kids talk about their loss, it's as important for these kids to get back to being a kid again," said camp founder Lynn Hughes. "Because after a death they have become a miniature adult before their time and to just get them back to being silly and doing silly songs and campy activities from the hokey-pokey to smores around the bonfire, to a huge kick ball game. It's equally as important for them, like I said, to play really hard. So camp just really lends itself to that experience the best."
Comfort zone camp is just like any other. The campers enjoy swimming, cooking out, playing tag, all the things we remember about summer. But kids here also get to grieve in a place where their grief is understood and accepted.
"Sadly I experienced loss myself and there were no resources when I was growing up," Hughes said. "I lost my mom when I was 9. She was playing tennis and pulled a muscle in her leg and died three days later in her sleep from a blood clot. And then two and a half years, my father died from a massive heart attack, the day before I started 7th grade. So I was aware of how isolating and lonely it was."
Many of the children share this kind of pain with their fellow campers but sometimes help from someone older can make all the difference.
"We pair them one-to-one with an adult big buddy volunteer who serves as their anchor, mentor, friend. And the sole job of that big buddy is to play hard with that kid and put a smile on their face that would not be there otherwise," she said.
"Something about getting kids away from the real world and away form I-pods, and TVs and the headlines and news and the whole beauty of nature and just that whole bubble of getting away from the real world. Just allows them to step out of their loss and be around other kids who get them and kinda check the scarlet letter 'D' for death kid at the door.
"Two-thirds of it is fun, because these kids are kids and nobody wants to sit with the heaviness for a long time.
"Saturday night we do karaoke which is just hilarious. Then we go to the bonfire and we do things like smores and the hokey-pokey and repeat after me silly songs, but then we transition into a solemn sacred time. All the kids gather round we do a circle of remembrance and they say who they're there in remembrance of. They write a note to their loved one, which they put in the bonfire and we talk about the smoke carrying their message to their loved ones."
While it is only one weekend long, comfort zone camp hopes to teach kids how to cope with grief for a lifetime.
"If you look at it like a big hole inside of you after a death and the thing that stinks the most is that hole never fully goes away, but there's things and people that can fill it and shrink it and make it a little more manageable," Hughes said. "So that's what we hope that camp does, that it helps eases that pain and makes that hole a little bit more manageable."
Comfort Zone Camp has programs for kids as young as 7, and they even have special programs for young adults up to age 22.