Camp Safe Harbor helps children deal with loss

“I’m really sad my dad died,” said one young boy quietly to the camera filming him inside Salisbury University’s high-definition studio.

He and his fellow campers at Camp Safe Harbor were making a video about words associated with loss: scared, hurt, angry, sad. Other camper videos answered questions about grief and shared comforting messages for those who are grieving.

The activity was one of several that gave the 16 children participating in the inaugural Camp Safe Harbor an outlet for expression. Each had lost a parent, grandparent, sibling or other close loved one within the past year.

Coastal Hospice partnered with SU to hold the three-day bereavement program on campus in June. It was designed to help children ages 6-12 with grief management and funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore.

“Children who have lost someone dear to them grieve in a very different way from adults,” said Sharon Hutchison, chaplain at Coastal Hospice and an organizer of the event. “They may find it harder to express their feelings, and may even somehow feel it is their fault.

“At Camp Safe Harbor, by joining other children who have experienced a similar loss, we saw the children come to terms with their grief and be able to talk about it rather than hold it inside.”

During the camp, children created family flags about themselves and whom they lost; memory bracelets, pillows and books; thought clouds to show what was in their heads about their loved ones; and a ship to illustrate who was with them on their journey through grief. A dodge ball game allowed the campers to talk about what happens when life “hits them hard,” while a trip to the weight room at SU equated grief to carrying a heavy burden.

Traditional summer camp activities were included too, from ice cream, to games and movies, to a visit from Sammy the Sea Gull.

“The success of this camp was more than we ever anticipated,” said Dr. Kimberly Van Vulpen, faculty in SU’s Social Work Department. “We saw the children opening up and really sharing about their fears and losses. We also saw them supporting and comforting each other. It was amazing to see the bonds and, in some cases, positive physical changes that happened in such a short time.”

Among the 16 counselors on site were Coastal Hospice staff and volunteers experienced in grief support, and four SU social work students enrolled in a special topics summer program on children’s grief.

Van Vulpen’s students, including William Smith of Delmar and Karen Walls of Georgetown, were also enthusiastic about the experience. Smith, a 46-year-old veteran who plans to earn his MSW, lost his wife to cancer in 2010 and helped his three young sons through the loss of their mother.

“I found this camp to be an amazing opportunity to apply the classroom theories we have learned to real world situations,” he said.

 Smith said he was able to witness the stages of grief and the effects of grief on children of different ages. “It was truly an honor to get to know these kids and their stories.”

“The course is an unbelievable experience for students,” Walls said. “Being able to work with the kids and the hospice workers was rewarding.”

Janelle Beiler, a pastoral counselor at Coastal Hospice, was the director of Camp Safe Harbor.

“Our goal is for these kids, who have been through a major loss, to have a safe place to tell their story and hear the stories of others,” Beiler said. “We want them to see that they are not alone, that they are allowed to be open about their thoughts and emotions, and that there is hope and meaning right where they are.”

Coastal Hospice and SU plan to hold Camp Safe Harbor again in 2016.

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