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Grief camp gives children chance to say goodbye

When a loved one dies, holes are left in the fabric of people’s lives. For youngsters who have suffered the loss of a close family member, Camp Mariposa helps them deal with their emotions.

"If there are tears, we’re OK with it," said Cynthia Drew, who is from the Center for Compassionate Care and is the bereavement camp coordinator.

Camp Mariposa is hosted by the non profit Nathan Adelson Hospice for children 7 to 12. The grief camp takes place each summer at Torino Ranch in the Spring Mountains.

Youngsters sleep in 11 cabins and participate in typical summer camp activities — archery, swimming, rock wall climbing, crafts and campfire songs — but they also have sessions that help them come to terms with their grief.

The camp is fully funded by Nathan Adelson Hospice, with no cost to the families of accepted campers. For 2011, the camp was held in mid-July, and the theme was on being an explorer.

"We talk about how going into new territory can be scary, unsettling … we use conversation to get into that mind-set … then we work the treasure angle, and we talk about the gifts that come from life," Drew said.

There are four therapy-type sessions with activities sprinkled into the three-day, two-night camp, just enough to help but not overburden the children emotionally. One session focused on letting go.

"We have them write a letter to the person they lost," said Drew. "Some say, ‘Thank you,’ some say, ‘Goodbye.’ "

Then the letters are bundled and burned in a campfire to symbolically send the messages up to the sky.

Many of the children have lost a parent suddenly through murders, suicides or overdoses.

"This is not ‘gentle into the night we go’ stuff," Drew said.

Sometimes it’s a health issue that brings death. Whatever the cause, the result is the same — Mommy or Daddy is no longer around.

This was the 21st year the camp has been held. Most years averaged about 50 attendees. This year there were 70. Youngsters are divided by age group, and the ratio of children to professional counselors is about 2-to-1. Parents who sign up their child for the first time are, understandably, concerned about putting him on a bus and sending him off.

Sarah and her husband Paul (not their real names) adopted two siblings whose only parent died of a heart attack. The couple said they were looking forward to the children heading off to Camp Mariposa for the first time. They liked that the camp is outdoors and it’s "camping on a mountain versus a convention at a hotel."

Sarah said that for a long time the children didn’t want to talk about the death. One child would wake them after having bad dreams.

"They’ve really struggled with the loss," she said.

Other parents whose children attended Camp Mariposa in past years can attest to the benefits of the camp.

Suzanne Burns of Summerlin lost her husband, Bryan, to cancer after 18 years of marriage. He had fought the disease for roughly two years. The time came when he couldn’t fight anymore.

Her older daughter, Shannon, now 13, went into denial and refused to accept that he had only a few days left.

"She said, ‘My dad’s going to live to be 90,’ " said Suzanne Burns. "They were so fragile."

He died in May 2010. Shannon and her sister, Shaughn, now 9, were signed up for Camp Mariposa soon after.

"They left on the bus for camp, and I stood there and cried like a baby," Suzanne Burns said.

She said when she picked them up two days later, she saw an immediate difference in both daughters.

"It was like they realized it was OK to be happy, that it was OK to grieve but be happy, too," she said.

She signed them up again for 2011.

Tenesha Harvey sent her daughter, Jaynah Alexander, now 12, and fraternal twins Patrick Alexander and Peyton Alexander, now 10, last year. The children had lost their 49-year-old grandmother to a lingering illness in February 2008, followed by their 31-year-old father in July, after he suddenly collapsed into a diabetic coma. The children were in school when it happened.

"There was no time to say goodbye," said Harvey. "I had to tell them that he’s now in h eaven with Nana-poo."

A worried Harvey picked up her children and saw them hop off the bus, exuberant again.

"I was thinking, ‘I spent this whole weekend crying, and here you are, all excited ,’ " she said and chuckled.

The children got so much out of the camp that she, too, sent them again this year.

The effects of Camp Mariposa, she said, still crop up in little, subtle ways, such as the way the children interact with each other.

"They grow up just a little more," Harvey said.

Contact Summerlin and Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 387-2949.

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