Camp created by former MLB pitcher's foundation helps youngsters find solace
In the soft spring twilight hush, campers approached the board, clutching pictures in hands that seemed too small for such a task. Some were as young as 6.
“I lost my mom on St. Patrick's Day, five years ago,” said one.
“My dad died of blood cancer, leukemia, at 29. He died on my birthday, at night,” another said.
“This is a picture of me and my mom at Disney, and her name is Pamela.”
Others sat and watched. Later, the 12-to-17 “teens” held their own Memory Board ceremony to honor and recall loved ones who died. Then they all came together, 103 of them, around a campfire, singing, laughing, warming s'mores and just goofing around.
This is how it's done at Camp Erin, which offers support, comfort and coping tools for grieving children. Here, laughing and crying are equally encouraged. Anger management means expressing it. Sadness is a conversation starter.
Magic helps, too. Sean Evanick, a tall, outgoing 16-year-old from Ellwood City, was the camp's resident magician. He carried a deck of cards, ready to perform upon request. He writes silly songs, plays the guitar and wears hats. Not ball caps, but grown-up fedoras, a different color each day.
“I try to act as ridiculous as possible to make people laugh and have a good time,” he said.
Sean and his twin, Josh, were born prematurely. Sean was healthy, but Josh had a rare condition, necrotizing enterocolitis, which damages the bowel. Shortly before his 1st birthday, Josh underwent a liver and small-bowel transplant. The operation worked, but doctors later removed Josh's spleen, weakening his immune system. He succumbed to a lung infection at age 8.
This was Sean's sixth camp and the third for his brother, Alex, 10, reputedly a cutup as well. Asked what he learned to help cope with his brother's death, Sean said: “I've learned that a lot of people go through the same thing. It helps me get a lot of emotions out, be able to talk to people.”
If Camp Erin had a motto, it would be “You are not alone.”
Still, many have trouble attaching words to feelings, especially early on. Sean was there to help.
“I'm one of the people who are more into it,” he said. “If I open up, they open up.”
Helping kids not be afraid
Started in 2002, Camp Erin is spread among 39 locations nationwide and two in Canada, each staged over a three-day weekend from March through November. In the Pittsburgh area, the camp is held in mid-June at YMCA Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer on 500 scenic acres of Butler County forest and meadows bisected by a narrow portion of Conoquenessing Creek. The estimated cost of $600 per camper is free. There are no TVs. Cellphones and other electronics are prohibited.
Camp Erin was created and is supported by the Moyer Foundation, as in Jamie Moyer, the ageless, crafty left-handed pitcher who played 25 years in the big leagues. Moyer last season at 49 became the oldest pitcher in Major League Baseball history to win a game. He is out of the game now, but has not officially retired. “I don't like to use that word,” he said.
The Moyer Foundation has helped children in various ways since its founding 13 years ago but lately has focused on bereavement camps. It operates Camp Mariposa for kids with alcoholism and addiction in their families. Camp Erin is named for Erin Metcalf, 15, of the Seattle area, whom Jamie and Karen Moyer met through Make-a-Wish Foundation. She died from liver cancer two years later.
“The experience we had with Erin taught us a lot about life and how to live and how to give back,” Moyer said from his home near San Diego. “We always believed in giving back and trying to help those in less fortunate situations, and she brought that to the forefront.”
Camp Erin originated because “people really don't talk about grief and bereavement,” said Moyer, a father of eight. “It's so difficult. What we're trying to do is get kids to understand that it's OK to grieve, it's OK to cry and to share, and when they come to Camp Erin they can do that. And they can remember their loved ones in a positive way and hold them in their hearts.”
Locally, the Moyer Foundation partners with Good Samaritan Hospice, a mission of Concordia Lutheran Ministries. Businesses and organizations such as Pirates Charities pitch in. Most of the on-site help comes from volunteer “big buddies” who stick with assigned campers nearly every step of the way.
The volunteers find it rewarding.
“What do I not get out of it?” said Robert Lorence, 36, of Cranberry, who worked his third camp. “People are afraid of grief, afraid of death. This is to help kids not be afraid of it.”
Nino Pollino, 54, a first-time volunteer from Cheswick, said: “I've got four boys of my own. They never had to go through anything these kids have gone through. It's unimaginable, listening to these kids and their stories.”
Camp officials said more volunteers, especially men, are needed to accommodate a growing number of campers.
During the camp, one potential volunteer who came by to check things out was Jaclyn McKenry, wife of Pirates catcher Michael McKenry.
“I was floored when I heard about this,” she said. “This is amazing. I was 23 when I lost my dad. But I felt like a kid.”
Kids love animals.
“Thank you for bringing the dogs,” camper Riley Lewis, 11, told Lori Gurley, a pet therapy volunteer from Painesville, Ohio.
Gurley brought just one dog, Baloo, her 6-year-old goldendoodle (three-fourths poodle, the rest golden retriever), but there were others.
“Mostly, they just like to pet them, and that makes them feel good,” Gurley said. “I love doing it. I love sharing him. He's always happy, and I think he makes other people happy.”
Riley is a supercharged Penguins fan from Prospect who owns a black Labrador named Crosby Scott Lewis and an overriding concern about the club's payroll and salary cap situation. His first cousin, 14-month-old Tyler Davis, died in June 2007. Jarred Burton Knight, the boyfriend of Riley's aunt, Jessica Davis, was convicted of killing the child by smashing his head into a bathroom wall.
“To me, he was like a brother,” Riley said.
Riley is not shy about expressing his thoughts on a variety of subjects, but the violent death of a small child is another matter.
“He's opening up a little bit,” said his big buddy, Joshua Grosclaude, 20. “I think he's doing OK with the grieving process. He seems to be going through all the stages.”
“I'm not over it, but I'm getting better,” Riley said.
Hanging out with happy dogs helps. So do other fun, camp-type things such as swimming, a zip line, a splash park and a popular form of dodge ball known as Gaga, played inside an octagon. It has several variations, including Zombie Gaga (don't ask). During free time, jump ropes and hula hoops appeared to be making a comeback.
Then there are the grief activities such as “Puzzling Thoughts.”
Why a puzzle? “When someone dies, their puzzle falls apart,” explained volunteer Cathyann Simmons, who works as a licensed counselor.
Campers get a large, cardboard puzzle piece they decorate with red and green markers for a 3-D effect (glasses are provided) and then inscribe with questions. Several wrote, “Why did you die?” Among other questions were, “Why was he so sick?” “Can you write to me?” and “When will it stop hurting?”
Answers are not forthcoming.
“You leave (the questions) for reflection,” said Lori Arend, the camp's clinical director who is director of counseling and health services at La Roche College. “All of the answers are inside us. They just don't know it yet.”
Parents, guardians, relatives and friends attended closing ceremonies. More hugs, more tears, more laughing and singing. Two college-age volunteer women performed “Amazing Grace” to warm applause. A dozen doves were sent off into the rain.
Paul Rist, a Lutheran minister and bereavement coordinator at Good Samaritan, and the camp's unofficial father figure, noted that some campers had doubts when they arrived. “I don't think there are any doubts now,” he said.
“I feel better when I know there are other kids going through the same thing,” said Jordan Zellers, 10, whose father, Ron, last year collapsed while cutting grass at his parents' house and died shortly after. He was the New Kensington police chief.
Jordan said someone called her a “freak” because she did not have a father. At Camp Erin, she said, “You do stuff that ordinary kids who have two parents would do.”