- Associated Press - Saturday, August 9, 2014

CLEVELAND (AP) - The 45 kids running around the North Chagrin Reservation in suburban Cleveland this August morning could be part of any summer day camp in the country. They’re kicking soccer balls, making sand castles in a volleyball court, and using magic markers and iridescent stickers to decorate their new T-shirts and water bottles.

It’s all fluorescent colors, coolers of fruit juice and tubs of fabric paint. But step closer and you’ll see why Camp Bridges is different.

At a craft table inside the River Grove Picnic area, a young girl in a green shirt hunches protectively over a pink sheet of paper, which she is meticulously covering with geometric shapes, mostly diamonds. Next to her, another girl writes: “Dear Mom, I love you. Take care of me. I love you, you are my best mom.” Across the round table, a young boy abandons his blue sheet of paper after writing: “I miss you.”

They are writing these notes to mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins - all people they have lost, primarily to homicide.

Camp Bridges, an annual daylong bereavement camp organized by FrontLine Service, a nonprofit social service agency in Cleveland, is designed to give these children a chance to spend time together, to remember and grieve, and to just have fun being kids, said medical director Dr. Cyndi Vrabel.

“When trauma happens, it changes a person, but children are particularly vulnerable because they’re going through key developmental stages,” she said. “So the earlier someone is traumatized, the more profound an effect it has on them.”

A new report released recently from Child Trends, a Washington nonprofit, shed light on just how pervasive childhood trauma is. Almost half of the nation’s children have been exposed to traumatic experiences such as witnessing violence or living with a parent who is an alcoholic or drug addict. These kids are much more likely to bully, repeat grades in school and have learning problems.

When it comes to exposure to “adverse childhood experiences” as they’re known in research circles, Ohio’s children uniformly fared worse than the rest of the country. About one in seven kids in Ohio has been exposed to more than three of these traumatic experiences, which researchers have known for decades have cumulative long-term health effects and can lead to alcoholism, mental illness and obesity in adulthood.

“The good news is that people can recover,” Vrabel said.

Children who participate in Camp Bridges are referred through FrontLine’s Children Who Witness Violence and the Violent Loss Response Team, which are funded by Cuyahoga County. Cleveland police help identify families that may need services after a traumatic event, and the camp is one option for kids. This is the 12th year it’s been offered.

Nira, 14, has been coming to Camp Bridges for four years, since police notified her family that Nira’s mother was one of the 11 women found dead at Anthony Sowell’s house on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland in 2009.

Nira, who was raised by her grandparents and lives in Cleveland Heights, said the first year of camp was hard because she couldn’t talk much about her mom without crying.

“I was a little scared and weirded out,” she said, mostly because she didn’t know anyone. “But I got better at it. When people would ask me about it I could control it better than I used to.”

Mostly, she likes camp because it’s a chance to get away. “It’s a break from the drama and other things that are happening around me,” she said.

“It lets them be kids,” Vrabel said. “That was the most shocking thing to me, when I started this work. These kids have been through more than anybody should have to survive, and they come out here and they’re playing and running and just being kids.”

Indeed, when it’s time for a welcome circle in the morning, it’s hard to drag many of the boys off the basketball court, and volunteers have to cajole kids into abandoning their intricate sand castles. A 9-year-old girl jumps up and down in circles, giggling and shouting “I’ve got sand in my pants!”

At this year’s camp, there are kids as young as 3, and campers who have turned 18 and come back to volunteer as “buddies” to younger children.

Adria Avery, 18, of Cleveland, is one of those volunteers. She’s been coming to Camp Bridges since 2009, the year after her aunt, who was only a month younger than her, was shot and killed.

“She was my aunt, my best friend, everything,” Adria said. “We were the only younger girls growing up in my family. There were a million and one boys.”

Adria said camp is a welcome escape from the sadness she still feels about her aunt’s death, and she keeps coming back because it has helped her cope.

“It got me through a lot,” she said. “I look forward to it every year to get my mind off the bad situation of her not being here and think about the good times we spent together. When I come here I remember all the fun times we had.”

Adria is partnered with a girl who lost her father at a young age.

“I can help her because her situation is very similar to mine,” she said. “It’s cool and relaxing to be with people who are going through what I’m going through and feeling what I’m feeling.”

About a dozen volunteers this year are Cleveland police officers, and others are from Cleveland Clinic Euclid Hospital and AXA Advisors. The camp was sponsored by a $2,500 donation from First Lutheran Church of Strongsville and meal donations from Dave’s supermarkets.

Melissa Dawson, a Cleveland police sergeant who helped coordinate the officers volunteering, said the camp is an opportunity to create a different kind of relationship between kids and police.

“These are Cleveland kids,” she said. “This gives us another way to develop a relationship with these kids. Some of them may feel that when the police show up it’s always negative, when oftentimes we’re there to help, so we want to establish that relationship with the kids.”

Many of the volunteers, like the campers, have been to the camp many times and plan to return next year.

“I love it here,” Adria said. “I love the long walks. I’d never do that at home.”

Nira isn’t as fond of the hikes - she’s not a big fan of bugs - but she does love the camp and will definitely be back.

This year, she wrote her mom a letter on colored paper, rolled it up and put it inside a glass bottle and then filled the bottle with colored sand. It’s something she can take home to help her remember the day.

“I wrote that I wish that she could be here, that I love her, that I know that she loves me and my big sister and little brother,” Nira said. “And I said thank you for giving me a chance at life with my family, and just that I’m able to be here, and not anywhere else.”


Information from: The Plain Dealer, https://www.cleveland.com

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