After 11 years in the Girl Scouts, Charlotte Sanders knew she wanted her final project, for the highest Gold Award, to be about grief.
That may seem unusual for an 18-year-old, but grief has been a big part of Charlotte’s life. Her father died when she was 3, and her brother, Christopher, died when she was 8.
For her project, Charlotte, a senior at Covenant Day School in Matthews, decided to write a book to help other children understand their feelings. She based it on a play she has watched every summer since she was 9, at the Chameleon’s Journey camp for grieving children, sponsored by Hospice and Palliative Care Charlotte Region.
She first went to the camp in 2006, the year her brother died. She loved the play, also called “Chameleon’s Journey,” that started each week of camp. It tells the story of Chameleon, who liked to change his colors at will. But when his friend dies, he becomes confused about why he can no longer control his colors, changing from angry red to sad blue to jealous green.
In the play, Chameleon seeks guidance from Wise Old Owl and learns that “it’s normal to have lots of different feelings when someone we care about dies.”
As a camper for eight years, Charlotte knew the story well. It had helped her understand emotions, such as being jealous of friends who still had their fathers and siblings.
Grief is “something that people are really afraid to talk about,” Charlotte said. But the play “made this adult emotion very childlike. It was very easy to understand what was happening.… It was very much relatable for a 9 year old.”
So, Charlotte contacted hospice and got permission from Larry Dawalt, senior director of spiritual and grief care services, to adapt the play. It was originally written by two hospice grief counselors when the camp started in 2000. Over the years, it has been revised by others, including Dawalt, who was delighted that Charlotte wanted to make it into a book.
“She has taken her experience and turned it into something that will touch many children in the years to come,” Dawalt said. “I am so very proud of her.”
For the 18-page book, Charlotte drew 15 illustrations of the colorful chameleon and his friends – Bluebird, Rabbit, Yellow Butterfly and Wise Old Owl. She also included questions at the end to help jump-start family discussions about dealing with loss. The questions include: Who is the Wise Old Owl in your life? What are some things you do to feel better? What do you do to remember your loved one?
The box of finished books, published by www.thebookpatch.com, arrived at Charlotte’s house before this year’s camp in October. Both Charlotte and her mother, Laurie Sanders, donated 70 books, and hospice bought more so that all campers could have one. Laurie Sanders said she plans to donate books to new campers every year.
She and Charlotte have also donated books to KinderMourn, the Charlotte nonprofit that helps children and adults mourn the loss of a child.
The total project cost Charlotte and her mother about $500. The books can be purchased at cost, for $7.50 each, by sending email to email@example.com.
Charlotte said attending the Chamelon’s Journey camp, and being surrounded by other kids who had lost loved ones, was comforting even if they didn’t talk about their losses. “You just had this feeling that they kind of knew what you were going through,” she said.
“I learned that how I was feeling was OK, and that some day it would get better,” Charlotte said. “Obviously we can’t get a parent back, we can’t get a sibling back. But we will have other people around us. That support system, that’s not gone.”