NEWTON — Most nights, 10-year-old Lily Williams, sleeps with her memory book beside her bed. After her dad died in August 2016, she taped her favorite old family photos into the white-lined pages of a composition book.
Next to a picture of a smiling, round-faced man playing with a little blond girl outdoors, Lily wrote “dAd And mE” in her careful, child’s script. On another page, she drew a wiggly arrow pointing to a selfie her parents took in front of a fountain, her dad’s extended arm reflecting in his dark glasses. “mom ANd dAd,” she wrote beneath, as if she were labeling paintings hanging in a museum.
Lily brought her memory book to Camp Kangaroo, a free two-day camp for grieving children and teens offered by Seasons Hospice, an Illinois-based company that has a location in Milton. The camp is funded through its nonprofit foundation, a spokeswoman said.
The camp, which concludes on Sunday, drew about 20 children for a weekend of supportive activities at the former Mount Ida College campus. Each participant was paired up with a “Roo Buddy,” a volunteer adult who provided one-on-one companionship.
Together, the youngsters played, made crafts, sang songs, and talked about their shared sense of loss.
“It feels nice to be with other people who have been through it,” Lily said on Saturday. “But it’s never the same. It never works the exact same as it used to.”
She reached over to fix a fake mustache that was curling off the cheek of her 6-year-old brother, Reed. Their half-sister, Sierra Wheaton-Williams, 19, had accompanied them, watching over her siblings and listening in on group sessions.
“If I don’t really know someone, and they’re like, ‘How did your dad die?’ it’s like, ‘Stop!’ People ask me that a lot, a lot, a lot,” Lily said. “But here, I like seeing other people who had someone pass away.”
The kids played with a therapy dog named Dawn, a big golden retriever that visited with her owner and handler, Mindy Hoge. They ate fruit and bagels, chewing slowly while adults painted their faces. They could cry or laugh, step out of the room or jump around, whatever felt right for them.
“We want them to know that they’re not alone in their experience, that there are so many kids who are going through this,” said Evelyn Amato, the camp coordinator and director of Supportive Care Services for Seasons Hospice in Massachusetts.
During an opening group activity, campers introduced themselves by saying their name and favorite food. Some spoke quietly, looking down. Some whispered to their “Roo Buddy,” asking them to repeat it to the circle. Some twisted side to side as they spoke, both gleeful and sheepish to speak before a group.
After each introduction, the adult volunteers cheered, as if each name were a triumph, each food a revelation. One by one, the children smiled, bashful and proud.
Later, they separated into smaller groups to do activities and talk about loss. They drew pictures of their families, often leaving a space between stick figures where another once would have stood. Empty spaces for a sister or grandmother, room left for a missing dad or mom.
Some explained their loss as best they knew how: a boating accident, cancer, or suddenly falling over in the kitchen. Several of the children also lost people to the scourge of addiction.
Colin Carlson, 8, pursed his lips in concentration as he wrapped his full fist around a thick, black crayon. As part of an exercise, he filled in a chart with spaces labeled “before,” “same,” and “after,” thinking about how loss changed his life.
In the “before column,” Colin wrote: “He was a fireman, so we used to go to the firehouse.”
He didn’t want to tell the group how his dad died two years ago.
“I still have my mom and my brother and my grandparents,” Colin said to the group. “And we still see all of his friends when we go to the firehouse.”
His mother, Katie Carlson, said that her late husband’s friends still help the family, playing with her boys whenever they stop by the firehouse to chat.
Like Colin, Lily still has a hard time talking about her father’s death. She attributed his death to “health problems,” which surprised her because he was only 33, and said her mom was really sad afterward.
“I usually say, ‘Your dad was very sad, and he was so sad, and he felt that he needed to make a choice to not be alive anymore,’” said their mom, Jennifer Williams, in a phone interview. “They’re still trying to understand what that means.”
Williams still struggles with her late husband’s suicide, learning how to live after the abrupt loss and unexpected life as a single parent. She tried weekly therapy sessions for the kids. But the location was a 90 minute drive each way, making the journey too difficult.
“Having this weekend camp? My kids are going to get a tremendous value out of this that will last them a lifetime,” Williams said.
At lunch, Lily sat next to Isabella Ryan, 8, who recently lost her mom. The two girls chewed slowly on sandwiches donated by the local Wegmans.
“Can I see your book?” Isabella asked shyly, turning to Lily.
Lily put her sandwich to the side and smiled. The two girls looked at her family photos, their heads bent, face-painted cheeks nearly touching. Despite great loss, they were still just kids, making new friends on a beautiful summer day.
Clarification: This story has been updated to state that Camp Kangaroo is funded by the nonprofit Seasons Hospice Foundation.