It has been almost two years exactly since 10-year-old Isaac Vogt and his 4-year-old sister, Katie, learned the meaning of the word “devastating.” On May 7, 2012, after a five-year battle with melanoma, their beloved mother, Lois, succumbed to the disease at the age of 42, leaving their father, Peter, as the sole parent of two young children who were blindly grappling with their grief.
Isaac, now 12, can be reserved and quiet. He doesn’t speak easily about his feelings, but what little he reveals is meaningful. Details about his mother, and his love for her, remain sharp in his mind. “I remember one time when my mom was in hospice, we both sat on her tiny medical bed playing Life on her old computer,” Isaac says, lingering over the memory. “She used to tell me all these stories about when she was a teacher, which I really liked.”
At any age, grieving the death of a parent is an exercise in isolation. For children like Isaac and Katie, now 6, it is an especially lonely experience, since it’s unlikely that they would know other kids who have gone through such loss. And yet, many children are dealing with the death of a loved one: According to a 2010 survey, one in seven American children will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20, and the impact of their grief may be profound and long-lasting.
It’s for Isaac, Katie and the millions of other grieving children across the country that Camp Erin was created in 2002 by the Moyer Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2000 by former Major League Baseball player Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen. Camp Erin — a weekend-long, sleepover retreat — is the largest network of free children’s bereavement camps in the country, with 43 locations and counting. To date, Camp Erin has hosted more than 12,600 kids. It was in a wooded Minnesota setting last summer that Isaac was able to honor the memories of his mother, learn to process and talk about his grief, and participate in traditional, fun camp activities, all the while connecting with other kids who have had similar experiences.
In short, at Camp Erin, Isaac’s healing truly began. “Losing a loved one is never easy, no matter what age you are,” says Karen Moyer, vice president of the Moyer Foundation. “Studies show if you don’t deal with grief, you have a higher risk of depression, relationship issues and alcohol and drug abuse. Whenever there’s any type of distress in your life, it’s really important to acknowledge it and not run away from it. Face it, own it and try to live on in your memories.”
Camp Erin — which was recently the subject of the HBO documentary “One Last Hug: Three Days at a Grief Camp” — was born of such a memory. In 1998, when Jamie was pitching for the Seattle Mariners, he and Karen were invited to meet 15-year-old Erin Metcalf and her family through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Erin was battling liver cancer and, being an avid baseball fan, she had requested to meet a few players. “There was an immediate connection,” Karen says of their first meeting. “I stayed in touch with the family through Erin’s suffering and her eventual passing [in 2000 at the age of 17]. I was so touched by her, her faith and her embracing death. She had sisters and was very concerned about them and how they would grieve. For me, on a personal level, that was really amazing. ”
In 2002, the Moyers established Camp Erin in Everett, Wash., hosted by the hospice that the Metcalfs used. From there, the camp expanded throughout the Northwest, before going national. In 2007, the Moyers donated $1 million to fund the program’s expansion, with the goal of having a Camp Erin in every city with a Major League Baseball team. “I think it became a legacy, after Jamie’s long and successful career, that he could leave something behind in the cities that he played in,” Karen Moyer says.
Each of the Camp Erin locations partners with a local grief-counseling organization, which runs the camp and provides support services. While each camp follows the specific model laid out by the Moyer Foundation, it’s up to the partner organizations to make the camps their own. They train the volunteers and do the necessary community outreach to let people know about Camp Erin and increase attendance. In turn, the Moyer Foundation makes a 10-year, $100,000 financial commitment to each partner organization to allow it to continue hosting Camp Erin at least once a year. Some locations have already reached the 10-year mark, and Karen Moyer says that so far, the partner organizations have been able to keep their Camp Erin programs afloat on their own, through fundraising and volunteer efforts. “The communities are really taking it on and sustaining it much longer than we would be able to,” she says. “We’re planting the roots and they’re helping it grow.”
For the past five years, Minnesota’s Camp Erin has been hosted by a Twin Cities-based organization called Youth Grief Services (YGS). It is the only program in the state that offers bereavement counseling for the whole family, centered on grieving children. Jenny Simmonds, lead program coordinator for YGS, says that she has had parents drive their kids 30 miles or more to attend its seven-week grief-counseling series. With the introduction of Camp Erin, YGS has reached kids from all over Minnesota and from other states as well. “We know kids heal through play, and camp is a ripe environment for that,” Simmonds says. “The kids go canoeing and swimming and all those fun camp things, just knowing that they’re doing that with kids who understand what it’s like. That’s very healing.”
A typical Camp Erin program starts before the weekend actually begins. In Minnesota, Simmonds says they host a “save your spot” pizza party for the campers and parents about two weeks before camp. This event gives campers the chance to meet their cabin mates and counselors, while also giving parents some peace of mind that their kids will be taken care of while they’re away. “Kids are coming here not knowing [anyone] except for a sibling in some cases,” Simmonds says. “There’s a lot of nervousness in the beginning. Also, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve been separated from their parents since the loss.”
For Peter Vogt, the introductory session made a big difference. Not only did he feel comforted knowing that Isaac would see some familiar faces by the time he got to the camp, but he was also grateful that the counselors told parents what to expect after the campers came home. “Isaac, he’s an introvert like his old man. He’s not prone to talking about stuff immediately after it happens,” Vogt says. “They told us that it might be a few days until they start to talk about things [that happened at camp], and I found that helpful.”
Once the kids get to camp, they say a quick goodbye to their parents or guardians before starting the opening ceremony. Here, the kids post a picture of their lost loved ones on a memory board and introduce themselves to other campers. It’s emotional and daunting all at once. “It was kind of strange in the beginning, the first night we’re there, talking about what happened in front of the whole camp,” Isaac says of the opening ceremony. “I didn’t exactly enjoy that.”
But the discomfort of talking about their loved ones wears off as the days go on. They hold sharing circles, where the kids attempt to express their feelings of grief through words or pictures. They also participate in fun camp activities like climbing walls, canoeing, swimming and fishing. And on Saturday night, they take part in a luminary ceremony, during which each camper releases into the water a lit lantern that he or she has decorated and says goodbye to the person they lost. “That can be pretty heavy, and we don’t want the kids to be too emotionally raw, so afterward we have a big luau party with lots of games,” Simmonds says. “The kids are really bonded by then.”
The next morning, the kids break up into their sharing circles and get ready for the closing ceremony, when they perform skits and songs that they prepared with their groups over the weekend. After just two short days, parents say they start noticing a marked change in their kids. “You can tell as a parent if your child has bonded with kids or not,” Vogt says. “Isaac had definitely bonded with some of the kids he was with and some of the adult leaders, too. So much of Camp Erin boils down to feeling like you’re not the only one. And that’s the biggest benefit from it.” Vogt was so happy with the camp that Isaac is going back this summer, along with Katie, who is now old enough, as well as the two children of Vogt’s fiancée, who lost her husband six months after Lois Vogt passed away.
That’s the fundamental mission that drives Camp Erin — to be the place that helps bereaved children realize they’re not alone. “I’m always touched by the campers who come on that Friday night, basically as strangers, and how they can comfort each other in their moments of sadness in the memory board scene, and just hug each other,” Karen Moyer says. “They laugh and cry. It’s safe. And for some kids, who haven’t cried yet and they finally do so at camp, that’s the real beginning of their process of healing.
“Miracles happen at the camp in the sense that things you think are impossible become possible,” she says. “It can be lifesaving, quite honestly. Kids learn how to live on in this world.”