PERRYSVILLE — After a sudden torrential downpour 42 campers and 28 volunteers and hospice employees crammed together in the gathering room at Pleasant Hill Outdoor Camp, located in the quiet, winding hills of Perrysville.
Life-size Jenga and Connect Four kept idle hands busy, camp songs and games were led by counselors to keep the campers entertained. A camp employee with a booming but jaunty voice, nicknamed “Bear,” gathered the campers and volunteers into a circle, encouraging them to jump and dance as they sang. With no sign of relief from the weather, ice cream treats came in handy to tame the chaos as the afternoon wound down. Despite the seemingly endless pouring rain, the spirits inside the room were anything but dampened.
Since the early 2000s, Camp Hope has given children and teenagers in Knox, Ashland, and Richland counties a safe space to grieve, as well as to just be kids, said Kailey Bradley, bereavement coordinator at Hospice of Ashland and Richland counties.
“It’s a place to laugh, a place to cry, and we can have normal camp activities as well as talk about their grief,” Bradley said.
For the first time in its history, the camp has incorporated an overnight element and is now split into two sessions. The first session, which ran Monday through Wednesday morning, was for children aged 7 to 11. The second session, running Wednesday afternoon through Friday, is for children ages 12 to 17. Forty three preteens and teens signed up for the second session.
Despite being various ages and coming from diverse backgrounds, all of the campers have something in common — they’re grieving the loss of a loved one, or their “special person”, the reason they’re at camp. According to volunteer Curtis Schaffer, some of the campers may have multiple special people. A camper in his group said that she has four special people; her parents, grandma, and aunt, all of whom she has lost in her short life.
Throughout their stay at the camp, the campers experience typical camping activities: Kayaking, horseback riding, archery, arts and crafts and even a zipline. Along with the usual activities, the campers have several group counseling sessions and opportunities to discuss grief and the complexities that come with it.
“Our goals are to help teach coping mechanisms, and to help give them a better ability to talk about their grief. We want them to develop new friendships and abilities to express themselves,” Bradley said.
Campers are split into small groups depending on their age and gender, and the group is led by a counselor and Hospice volunteers.
Bradley and Kathy Wantland, bereavement coordinator at Hospice of Knox County, decided to continue with last year’s theme of Harry Potter, due to how often the characters in the book franchise lose someone close to them. They said they want campers to find connection points with the characters as well as other campers, because children in grief often ask, “Am I the only one?”
The camp uses events and themes in the books to create activities and lessons for the campers. Some of the activities are lighthearted, like wand crafting and homemade “polyjuice potion,” which, unbeknownst to the campers, was really lime sherbet and lemon lime soda. Some of the lessons are meant to stick with the campers, and be used as tools as they continue to navigate their grief. The books often mention “dementors,” creatures that consume human happiness. The camp counselors reference the creatures when talking about grief, and the scary and overwhelming feelings that a child might experience when dealing with the loss of a loved one. In order to get the “dementors” to leave, the campers come up with a “patronus,” or their happiest memory.
In addition to heavier subjects and meaningful lessons, the campers have plenty of opportunities to swim, jump, laugh and play, and experience the parts of childhood that grief at a young age can shadow. Bradley and Wantland want their campers, and other children experiencing grief, to know that it’s okay to have fun, and to just be kids.