Sometimes, after the death of a close family member, kids mature quickly; Experience Camps gives these kids the space to not only grieve, but to also to reconnect with childhood and to take a breath and just play. Many campers join the camp with quiet and resistant demeanors, but as the week goes on they end up leaving having opened up to processing their grief, and excited to return to camp next year.
“Campers process their grief differently at every developmental stage and build a strong community over time at camp. Over 80 percent of campers return year after year, and most of them stay for an average of five years,” explained Jesse Moss, national program manager of Experience Camps.
Moss got her BA from the University of Florida and has previously worked for Warner Bros. Television and President Barack Obama. She was drawn to this particular organization due to her own personal love of camp, which started when she attended Camp Lokanda for 10 years, coupled with the experience of grieving and trying to find a community of support, after the death of her brother Jordan in 2012. These events inspired her to become an Experience Camps CalEx volunteer, and ultimately, to become a part of the ExCamps central team.
Their campers are encouraged to return year after year. “Our camp is also a week-long, when most other programs are shorter. Campers participate in bereavement activities focused on communication, art, mindfulness, movement, and music. They compete in team competitions that build community and result in an intersection of play and grief that resonates with children of all ages (and our volunteers too!).”
Woven throughout it all, Moss told us, is a sense of inclusion that comes from belonging to a community of people who understand what you’re going through, all the while celebrating commonalities and differences.
Experience Camps’ volunteers look forward to camp all year long, and many even get more involved throughout the year. Volunteers join Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) in many different states that are made up of volunteers who want to do more than just come to camp each summer. The RAC is made up of the dedicated volunteers who live in the areas they primarily serve. They demonstrate commitment through their actions and deep involvement with Experience Camps on a regional and national level. Moss said they are innovative, inspirational, and pretty darn smart.
“Also, 80 percent of our volunteers have experienced death in their life. Volunteering is about giving back and about being surrounded by people who ‘get it,’” said Moss.
“They’ve [campers] shown me what it truly means to be resilient and become the best version of myself,” said a volunteer whose brother died. “Together we laughed, cried, sat in our sadness, roasted s’mores, participated in epic relay races and ‘minute to win it’ challenges, and celebrated the life of the person or people that have died. The Experience Camps community has given me the strength to share my story and continue to build a life focused on helping others.”
Campers can meet and connect with kids who are coping with similar challenges, Moss said, while getting all the benefits of the traditional summer camp experience. Through team sports, favorite camp traditions and community living, they learn about leadership, confidence and cooperation. Under the guidance of professional bereavement staff, campers can share stories and remember the person (or people) who died, while exploring skills that will help them after camp.
Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis. Experience Camps is waitlisted at a few of their camps, so Moss encourages those interested to get their applications in ASAP. Both campers and volunteers can apply on their website.
Moss said they are looking for more volunteers for their boys’ programs in Georgia, California, and Pennsylvania. You can learn more on their website or by reaching out to [email protected].