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Free camps help kids in grief process

Girls talk during a “sharing circle” at Camp Erin Boston in Amesbury last summer.
Girls talk during a “sharing circle” at Camp Erin Boston in Amesbury last summer.Jessamyn Martin

There were times last August when it almost seemed that Kelly Landers of Framingham, then 14, was at a traditional summer camp.

She went kayaking. She did crafts in her cabin. She sat at a campfire and roasted s’mores, and then danced to music and laughed into the evening.

But Landers and the 50 to 60 youths sharing her camping getaway had one other experience in common: They had all suffered the death of someone close.

“I was the only kid in my entire school who lost a parent,” the Marian High School sophomore said, “and when you go to these places, you’re not alone.”


Landers, whose mother died when she was 5, said she met people at camp who dealt with their losses in two of the ways she has: through music and running.

They were all guests of Camp Erin Boston, a weekend overnight program held at Camp Bauercrest in Amesbury, a facility more often used as an overnight sports camp for Jewish boys. Camp Erin Boston, which serves those ages 6 to 17 who have experienced the death of a loved one, is one of a growing number of free bereavement camps in Greater Boston. Sometimes outgrowths of hospice programs that help the dying, they focus on easing the pain of the living, using corporate donations, grants, and individual contributions to fund their activities.

Each takes a slightly different approach to healing its visitors. Camp Erin is run as a one-time weekend overnight program for youths. Both young and adult participants can return to another, the Camp Stepping Stones day program in Beverly, year after year. A new arrival in Newton, Camp Kangaroo, puts a heavy emphasis on therapy. Still another, Comfort Zone Camp, will offer an overnight program on Cape Cod in late August and a one-day event in Milton in September.


Camp Erin landed in Amesbury two years ago via a partnership with Wayland-based Parmenter Home Care and Hospice. Its guiding spirit is the Moyer Foundation , created by former Major League Baseball player Jamie Moyer, who pitched briefly for the Red Sox during a long career, and his wife, Karen. The camp is named after Erin Metcalf, a young woman they met through the Make-A-Wish Foundation who died of liver cancer at age 17 in 2000.

From a first camp in Everett, Wash., in 2002, it has grown to 46 locations, including all 27 cities with Major League Baseball teams across the United States and Canada.

This year, Camp Erin Boston will be held Aug. 21-23, preceded by an ice cream social July 19.

On the first night, said director Jennifer Wiles, campers talk to the group about their loved ones and put pictures of them on a memory board. On the second night, they decorate luminaria candles and set them on a raft, which is rowed out onto Lake Attitash. Other activities include street hockey, yoga, and a ropes course.

It is a misconception, Wiles said, that campers will be crying all weekend.

“Yes, there are times when it’s solemn, and it can be sad,” Wiles said. “But also what we’re really trying to do is find the strength and empower these kids, so a lot of times, they’re really having a blast.”

At Camp Stepping Stones, a day camp to be held July 18-19 at Beverly’s Glen Urquhart School, there is programming for adults as well.


So while Judith Nunez’s two children were swimming, making music boxes, and songwriting at camp in 2011, she said, she was taking part in sessions like “Spirituality and Loss” and “Sudden Death.”

Nunez, now 40 and living in Salem, learned about the camp from the Bertolon Center for Grief & Healing in Danvers, a program of the hospice provider Care Dimensions , after her husband died.

She attended the camp with her son and daughter from 2011 through 2013, and they volunteered last summer.

“They had never been in an environment where there were so many kids who had lost a parent, and it was so comfortable,” she said of the first summer. “They were like, ‘Why isn’t this every weekend?’ ”

This will be Stepping Stones’ 14th summer, but the first in which Camp Kangaroo, a nationwide program from Seasons Hospice Foundation, will have a session in the Boston area. It will be held next weekend at Mount Ida College in Newton.

The first Camp Kangaroo was held in 2012 in Chicago; this summer there will be nine locations nationwide.

“We saw all these other peer support, very activity-based models, and we thought: We need to do a therapy-based model,” said Russell Hilliard, who developed the curriculum.

The weekend includes eight therapy sessions coupled with activities “designed to enhance the therapy session that they just had,” Hilliard said. A session on dealing with anger, for example, might be followed by a drum circle or something movement-related.


“Our hope is that they can learn a lot about the grief process, really cognitively reframe a lot of their thinking, and then walk away with a tote bag full of coping skills,” Hilliard said.

Yet another offering, Comfort Zone Camp, was founded in 1998 in Richmond by Lynne Hughes, author of the bereavement book “You Are Not Alone.” After opening an office in Winchester in 2009 with backing from Massachusetts General Hospital and insurance giant New York Life, it will this year offer an overnight program at Camp Burgess in Sandwich on Aug. 28-30 and a one-day event in Milton Sept. 19.

Fun activities at the overnight camp, said regional development officer Sue Oppici, include a climbing wall, canoes and pontoon boats, volleyball, and archery. On the grief side, children join several 90-minute “healing circles” throughout the weekend.

Campers are assigned buddies on a one-to-one basis, a model also favored by Camp Erin and Camp Stepping Stones.

“I think each of the programs are doing something a little different,” said Oppici. “That’s what’s helping to provide many different resources, instead of the same exact resource over and over.”

Erica Moser can be reached at erica.moser@globe.com.