Therapy mixed with fun at weekend sleepaway
This past September, children and teenagers hiked on a rainy Saturday morning past a pond and down a road leading from the cabins at Camp Mariah, one of the campgrounds at the Fresh Air Fund’s Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill.
The campers were on their way to the woods. The procession included Saul O’Brien, 10, who lost his father and an aunt and uncle to overdoses, all within a year. In a thicket of alder, ash and Spanish oak trees, he and other campers rotated through a series of trust-building exercises.
For Saul, who lives in Manassas, Virginia, it was his second visit to a camp for children who have experienced the sudden death of family members.
“It helps with grief,” said Saul, whose father, Steven, died in July 2022. “It helps with my coping skills.”
Those are some of the gifts Lynne Hughes and other organizers of Comfort Zone Camp hoped to provide during a weekend sojourn that, from Sept. 22 to 24, drew 50 children and 12 of their parents and caregivers to Mariah.
Hughes knew the hallmarks and progression of grief when she founded Comfort Zone in 1998 after a career that included more than a decade leading medical nonprofits as an executive director, and a job coordinating volunteers at a hospice.
She was 9 years old when her mother died of a blood clot. A heart attack took her father three years later. The losses left her feeling marked with a “scarlet letter ‘D’ for death-kid,” and withdrawing “to cover it up.”
Few resources existed for her grief, said Hughes, but at summer camps she found “a bubble where you can step outside your loss and get back to being a kid again.” More than 23,000 children have been able to do that since Comfort Zone, whose camps are free, held its first getaway in May 1999.
Specialized camps for children who lost people to the 9/11 terrorist attack, suicide and COVID followed. But the camp in Fishkill became the first organized for children scarred by an overdose. Applications to Comfort Zone increased by 30 percent last year, said Hughes.
Because of the stigma associated with addiction, those children have a “unique nuance to their grief — the shame that they feel,” she said. Some of the children are being told that the person they’ve lost “died from a heart attack or some illness,” instead of an overdose, said Hughes.
Camp is an opportunity “to bring them together and to break down those walls and break down that stigma — to talk about that shame and somebody else to lean in and say, ‘Me too,’” she explained. “They blossom and grow and heal during the course of the weekend.”
The schedule combined traditional camp activities — archery, field games, boating, a bonfire with s’mores — with trust-building exercises and “healing circles” at which campers are encouraged to talk about their losses.
Parents and caregivers attend a separate menu of activities and healing circles, reuniting with the children and teens on the final day.
Jenn Harris, a clinical social worker and mental health counselor from Boston, helped christen the camp on Friday, after the campers arrived and met their “Big Buddies,” the adult volunteers who mentor and support them during the weekend.
After dinner and icebreaker games, Harris told of her brother’s overdose death, in 2000, inside a hotel room in Texas after a years-long struggle that included multiple rehab programs. He died two weeks before she graduated from Pepperdine University.
His struggle, she said, became the family’s — the manipulation, the frustration at his inability to get sober, anticipating the call that finally came. She recalled tearful nights wondering: “Why couldn’t he get sober? Didn’t he know how much we loved him and didn’t he love himself enough to want this?”
“What I love about this program is helping kids develop that resiliency — that you can keep living your life and still do the emotional piece of it,” said Harris. “Those stages of grief are happening throughout your lifetime. You don’t move through them and you’re done.”
Many of the campers bared those emotions during a memorial service on the camp’s last day. Inside Camp Mariah’s assembly hall, some children used music and poetry to pay a tribute to the parents, siblings, step-parents and others they lost.
A boy and his two sisters read a poem they wrote for their father: “Dad, you’re great/I miss you/I love you.” A woman played a song by her daughter, a singer and songwriter who died of an overdose.
After the service, Saul and his mother, Julie Nixon, prepared to leave. “He made a lot of good friends,” she said of her son. “And from what he’s told me, it’s nice to not feel like you’re the only one.”