When Sam Barbeau hears a grieving youth say, “You don’t know what I’m going through,” that might not always be true.
Barbeau, 20, lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 8. That year he attended his first Chameleon’s Journey – an annual camp for kids who have lost a sibling, parent or significant person in their lives – and he has been a counselor there since age 16.
“I do remember that I was fairly closed off around that age,” says Barbeau, a student at the University of Asheville. “I kind of tended to push people away.
“But with the amount of focus on the fun factor of Chamelion’s Journey, I kinda treated it as any other weekend camp. I think the biggest thing was that there were so many other kids going through the same thing.”
Empathy is the theme at the one-day camp for 7- to 16-year-olds, which takes place every October at Camp Thunderbird in Lake Wylie and is sponsored by Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region.
“I’ve heard ‘You don’t know what I’m going through’ before, and I know when I was younger I had said that before. ... that’s something that we take note of in a group,” Barbeau says. “So we try to tailor our sessions to the groups and to the individuals.”
Steve Montgomery says the camp is good therapy. His three children – twins Maxwell and Madeleine, 8, and Eleanor, 7 – have enjoyed the experience and look forward to it. Their mother, Eileen Montgomery, died in July 2011 at 45 of complications from cancer.
“It’s (also) great to be able to come together both from the adult perspective. They always have an a.m. session for adults where we sit around and share stories and talk about critical issues involving this path we’re on. And the children get to experience so much learning about others’ losses,” said Montgomery, 50, of Charlotte. “I don’t think you can accomplish that in a classroom setting. I couldn’t think of not doing it.”
Larry Dawalt – Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region’s senior director of spiritual and grief care, and the camp director – says this year’s turnout of 100 was fairly typical. The staff of about 60 provides a good ratio for kids to get individual attention.
“We try to divide up the kids into 10 groups,” says Dawalt, who has been with the camp since its inception in 2000. “The groups are mixed gender, and they are in a group that is for education, that we try to make specific to their development.
“It can’t be a cookie-cutter approach. With a 7-year-old, you’re going to be using nonverbal as much as verbal. You have to know what they can and can’t comprehend at that point, especially since some family losses play out over a long period and some are sudden.
“You also have to provide things that recognize your limitations for that camp period. You’ve got that kid for 30, 31, maybe 33 hours. The parents have them the rest of the time. You have to meet them where they are at that moment.”
Dawalt says one of the camp’s goals is “to let kids develop a network of people they know have experienced feelings they’ve had, and they don’t even have to tell each other their story.” The other goal is to give them a chance to have fun.
“The way we design our programming, we’ll have an hour that could have the potential to have a little more intensity than others, but then we’ll have something relaxing. They’re liable to go to a session like this year where they were doing a writing project called a “journal jar,” which uses writing props to process their grief. But an hour later, they might be on a zip line.
“So we go back and forth, and we feel like that teaches them one of our lessons of grief: You can’t grieve all the time. You have to have breaks from your grieving.”
Barbeau says the main focus “is to have fun, but with that we try to incorporate techniques on how to cope with the grieving process and knowing it’s OK to have those feelings. We do a lot of activities that encompass both team-building and grieving aspects.”
Help for youths isn’t limited to the once-a-year camp.
Dawalt notes ongoing services: a half-a-day “mini-camp” in April, intermittent meetings with kids who have needs, and that Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region also works closely with KinderMourn, which provides grief counseling for parents who have lost a child; the camp tries to get children in some of its programs if possible.
Although the camp is all about the kids, there are rewards for the counselors as well.
“Now that I’ve gotten older, I look forward to seeing the younger kids attend camp,” Barbeau says. “I get more out of seeing how they progress and seeing them come back year after year, having that familiarity.
“It’s really a great moment, greeting people who come and check in. That’s what makes me keep coming back.”