Experience Camps brings therapy and joy to kids whose loved ones have died

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Lillian Harvey’s sister, Maitland, died in a plane crash last December at just 18 years old.

For 12-year-old Lillian, finding people to relate to has been a struggle since enduring the tragic loss.

“People just say the same thing over and over again: ‘She’s in a better place, she’s watching over you,’” Lillian said. “And that just makes me feel worse. I know that she’s in a better place, but I just wish that she was here.”

That feeling of isolation changed the moment Lillian arrived at Experience Camps at Camp Kennybrook in Monticello, New York, this past summer. Like Lillian, every one of the 90 campers at “KenEx” has lost someone significant in their lives.

Sara Deren started Experience Camps in 2009 at Camp Manitou in Maine with 27 campers. Today more than 300 kids at three locations gather to grieve together through a combination of activities led by licensed clinicians and pure sleepaway-camp fun.

“We talk a lot about the balance in grief and that kids can have fun and also feel sad — and sometimes that’s going to happen at the same time,” Deren said.

That “can be a really confusing concept for kids. We want them to understand that all their feelings are normal and other people feel them, too.”

“Kids are going to feel much more comfortable opening up and sharing with each other when they’ve already started to form relationships in the cabin and through different activities,” Dan Wolfson, KenEx’s Clinical Program Co-Director, said

During the week there, campers take  part in a “grief journey” where they go around to four stations, each representing a different emotion felt during the grieving process.

At the anger station, campers write in sidewalk chalk what made them angriest.

After venting, they smash water balloons over what they’d written, clearing away the words and, hopefully, pent-up frustrations.

Counselor Zachary Bergman said he’s found the campers’ ability to transition between fun activities like swimming in the lake and tough therapy sessions to be remarkable.

“I was able to look over at the kids — not really thinking about what we just talked about — and smile,” Bergman told me.“Seeing them happy made me happy.”

KenEx isn’t just special in its unique mission. It also welcomes campers to attend at no cost, thanks to individual donations and foundation support.

No matter your age, race, religion or what you’ve experienced, KenEx is a family. Everyone is there to support one another and it’s really a beautiful thing to witness.

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