- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2000

The children of Camp Starfish act like those of any other sunny-weather camp. They swap water-balloon fire, hurl themselves over Slip 'n Slides and generate genial wars among rival cabins.
But amidst the joyous play come other games, ones designed to let the children explore some of their darker feelings.
One such contest, "grief burst," has children rattling off six ways in which a person can die. Another game involves writing messages on helium balloons to loved ones no longer with them.
The balloons are then set free.
Camp Starfish, a new program to be held twice yearly, helps children ages 6 to 14 cope with the death of a loved one. Held at Camp Friendship in Laytonsville, Md., the camp blends traditional play with more therapeutic offerings.
The all-volunteer effort was developed by the Washington Home and Hospice and the William Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, both in the District of Columbia.
Sarah Brophy, coordinator for children's services with the Wendt Center, says losing a loved one brings immense isolation into a child's life.
"To be surrounded by kids who have lost somebody is huge. They hear their stories around the room," says Mrs. Brophy, whose own mother died two years ago after an 11-year battle with cancer. "They get to see their stories on other children's faces."

During the camp's opening session, held June 9 through 11, each of the 23 children teamed with a "big buddy," a volunteer trained in grief counseling. The child and volunteer partake in painting, canoeing and other standard summer fare, then switch gears to cover more emotionally telling activities.
"That's how children grieve naturally. They feel the feeling one minute, then they go outside [to play] the next," Mrs. Brophy says. "They haven't had the coping skills yet to stay with the pain.
"It's important for the kids to know you can have fun. They don't have to be sad for the rest of their lives," she says.
The camp's camaraderie seems genuine, unforced. Adults blend in with children, new friends are treated like old ones. Children approached Mrs. Brophy during one break in the action, bear-hugging her as if they had known her all their lives.
Some of the children had suffered their losses recently; others had lost a parent a few years ago. None had been given the chance to mourn.
The next camp will be held Oct. 20 through 22, also at Camp Friendship.
Ginger Blessing, bereavement coordinator for Hospice of Washington, says children learn to mask their feelings by watching adults grieve.
"So much of the time, they model what they see the adults doing," Ms. Blessing says. Parents may put up a stoic front so the children don't worry about them, but the effect it has is damaging, she says. "That's not trying to put the parents down," she explains.
Ms. Blessing suffered her own devastating loss when her 17-year-old daughter committed suicide.
"When my daughter died, I had a 9-year-old. I didn't know what to do," she recalls. "I was engulfed in my own grief."
Holding in that grief does more damage than we realize, she says, particularly for children.
"It can come out in so many ways," she says. "Of all the violence happening with young children, so much is related to death or accumulated loss."
Camp volunteers undergo a full day of training with a grief counselor, then spend three hours before the camp to prepare for the task ahead. Many taking part in the June 9 through 11 session had experienced losses in their own lives, and their volunteer activities became a bit cathartic as the weekend progressed.
Some big buddies worry that they might show too much pain over their own memories, but Ms. Blessing assures them such behavior would be welcome.
"The children need to see that model," she says.
Dottie Ward-Wimmer, director of children's programs at the Wendt Center, says the buddies aid the communication process.
"There are kids who come here and they pour out their hearts," Ms. Ward-Wimmer says. "Other kids let their buddies tell it for them."
American culture sets some curious examples for how to grieve, she says, even though intentions may be noble.
"Jackie Kennedy never grieved in public. That's the American model," she says.
Anna Roberge of the District says she felt drawn to volunteer for the camp.
"I don't know why it struck a chord, but it did," Ms. Roberge says.
Ms. Roberge never attended funerals as a child, and her parents never talked about death when it struck her family or people she cared about. As a result, she says, she had no idea what to expect from her first camp experience.
"They're having a great time," she says of the young campers. "They made these friendships … they're best buddies from the get-go."
Wendy Paramore, a social worker from Silver Spring, Md., anticipated that the children would be reluctant to talk about their heartbreak. Instead, the opposite proved true.
"I didn't expect them to talk about it so fast," she says. "They blurt out stuff at the most random times… . it's so refreshing."
Bright-eyed Lauren Riehl, 10, of Germantown, Md., busied herself with the Slip 'n Slide and water-balloon battles.
"I'm enjoying it … just hanging out with the kids who have gone through the same things I have," Lauren says.
A child's reaction to a parent's death can follow unusual paths.
Volunteer Sole Aizpurua, a District resident who lost her father at 7, remembers the conversation she had with her mother when she first heard the news.
" 'Are you sure he's not hiding under the bed?' " she recalls asking her mother.
The headway made during the recently wrapped camp isn't finished. The camp will hold reunions of big buddies and participating children to track their progress and continue the healing.
Miss Blessing says the next Camp Starfish may incorporate family members.
For more information about future Camp Starfish sessions, call 202/895-0124 or visit its Web site at www.washingtonhome.org.

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