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Two Carle Health camps help children, teens, to process grief

Two Carle Health camps help children, teens, to process grief
When Amanda Aberle was 6 years old, her aunt died and Amanda was hurting.

“My dad explained to me ‘There’s a place where you could go hang out with other kids who are going through the same thing. Would you like to go?’ I said ‘Yeah, sure,’” she said.

She participated in Kourage Kids camp in 2008 and had fun.

A few months later, her mother died, and her dad asked her if she’d like to attend the one-day camp for a second year. Seven-year-old Amanda said OK.

Fast forward to 2018. She returned to the camp as a counselor.

“I went back because I remember being that little girl, not knowing what life would throw at me,” she said. “I remember looking up to the counselor. I wanted to be that person, helping other kids deal with grief.”

On Sept. 23, she is returning to Kourage Kids camp at Camp Good News in Washington for her second year as a counselor. Kourage Kids camp was on hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I want to be able to help kids to understand what’s going on,” the former camper, now Amanda Stogdill, 21, of East Peoria, said.

Carle Health Hospice Services offers two camps for children and teens who have experienced the death of a loved one. The camps are open to any children and youth, whether or not they have a connection to Carle Health.

Camp Healing Heart, which began in 2005, is for 5- through 17-year-olds and will be 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sept. 30 at the 4H Memorial Camp at Allerton Park in Monticello, Elizabeth Rieke, a social worker with Carle Hospice and Home Care and lead coordinator for the camp, said.

Kourage Kids camp, which began in 2000, is for 5- through 18-year-olds and will be 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 23 at Camp Good News in Washington, Jill Prosser, volunteer and bereavement coordinator for Carle Health Hospice Greater Peoria Region and camp coordinator, said.

The camps are free to campers, thanks in part to support from Carle Health Center for Philanthropy.

Carle Health Hospice continues to accept applications for both camps for campers and volunteers. The registration deadlines for Camp Healing Heart are Sept. 15 for volunteers and Sept. 22 for campers. The registration deadline for Kourage Kids camp is Sept. 15 but late registrations will be considered if space is available.

Both camps are designed to provide tools to children to help them cope, experience and process grief while connecting them to other kids who have lost a loved one. The day includes therapeutic sessions interspersed with fun activities, such as rock climbing, a wagon ride and arts and crafts.

Because children have less life experience, moving through the grieving process can be difficult and lifelong.

“Kids are often the silent grievers,” Prosser said. “We, as adults, pay attention to our own grief.”

“We want the campers to share their stories, to learn that they are not alone in their grief,” Prosser said. “This is a great opportunity to meet other kids and to learn ways to express their feelings and healthy coping skills in a safe environment.”

Kelsey Wilson-George is a Carle Health outpatient licensed clinical social worker in Urbana who volunteered as a facilitator at Camp Healing Heart last year.

“I thought it would be a good way to give back to the community,” Wilson-George said.

“These camps are important because children have different coping mechanisms than adults and different levels of emotional maturity,” Wilson-George said. “This is a safe environment for them to explore their feelings. Grief can be very isolating. It’s important for them to know they aren’t alone in their grief.

“I was a group facilitator,” Wilson-George said. “I stayed with one group of campers and I ran the grief sharing sessions. We had activities to talk about components of the grief process and to help campers express their emotions in a different way. But grief sharing is broken up by fun activities that allow campers to step away from their grief to focus on being kids and just having fun.”

Wilson-George’s mother died in February and her father died in March. “They were both unexpected and sudden. It hit our family very hard.”

She will be returning to Camp Healing Heart as a volunteer this year but will step back as a facilitator as she processes her own grief. Instead, she will run one of the fun activities.

“I think it’s such a valuable experience for the campers, I want to be a part of it again this year,” she said. In addition, she invited her 11-year-old niece as a camper.

“She was close to both of her grandparents but was especially close to her Nana,” Wilson-George said. “I hope she knows that what she is feeling is normal and that this is an outlet for her emotions.”

Rieke said “The volunteers see changes in the kids throughout the day.” Later, parents and teachers appreciate that children are processing their grief.

Some campers have lost loved ones to violence.

“We are working toward the betterment of youth in our community,” Rieke said.

As a camper, Amanda Stogdill remembers “We did a lot of activities that helped me and the other kids cope with what was going on.” She kept in touch with some of the other campers for a while.

As a camp counselor, she made sure that campers had a safe place to discuss their feelings.

“It’s not just about grief,” Stogdill said. “It’s about community and friendships.”

Jennifer Durst, of Urbana, lost her husband, Ethan, following a tragic accident in August 2021, leaving behind four children. In September 2022, the children – Elsie, then 11; Emie, then 10; Harry, then 8; and Robbie, then 5 – were still having a hard time grieving and processing their emotions.

Because they knew of no other children dealing with the same thing, Durst registered them for Camp Healing Heart.

“I didn’t want to go at first,” Elsie admitted. “I thought it would be really stressful. I thought I would be forced to talk about it. But I wasn’t forced to do anything. We talked about it but we did some fun activities also. The rock climbing was really fun.”

Throughout the next year, it became easier for Elsie to talk with people about her father’s death and her grief.

Durst said she has seen her children use strategies – such as journaling their feelings and reaching out to trusted adults – when they are upset. “They are recognizing their feelings. They recognize that anger is a part of grief.”

Durst said all four children had a great experience last year and they are registered for this year’s camp as they work through the grieving process.

“I’ve always been a lover of this camp,” Prosser said. “There are moments that are deep. And then there’s the laughter.”

“We give kids the tools,” Prosser said. “They learn it’s OK to be angry, it’s OK to talk about it, it’s OK to be happy and it’s OK to move forward.”

To register a child or to volunteer for Camp Healing Heart, click here. More information is available about Camp Healing Heart at (800) 239-3620 or (217) 902-3301. For more information and to register a child or volunteer for Kourage Kids camp, call (309) 672-5746.

Categories: Community

Tags: camps, hospice, philanthropy, youth