Categories: Family Faces
      Date: Jul 24, 2007
     Title: Good Mourning

Laura Harting’s day campers learn to express grief—and have fun

By Tammy DiDomenico

For all of the important services offered through Hospice of Central New York, it might be hard to imagine any of them being described as “fun.” But Laura Harting, a children’s grief therapist with the organization’s Center for Living With Loss, has changed that.

For all of the important services offered through Hospice of Central New York, it might be hard to imagine any of them being described as “fun.” But Laura Harting, a children’s grief therapist with the organization’s Center for Living With Loss, has changed that.

Harting, a counselor with Hospice since 1994, is gearing up for another round of summer fun with Camp Healing Hearts. She and many dedicated volunteers launched the project five years ago as a summer reprieve for children ages 6 to 14 who are living with loss.

Harting expects about 60 campers to convene at YMCA’s Camp Iroquois in Manlius August 20 to 23 for a week of nature, art, sports, friendship and compassion. She says she wanted to incorporate all the fun things children associate with camp, and put them in a supportive, friendly environment that encourages an exchange of thoughts and feelings, and supports healing.

This year’s camp will run 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. While many campers are referred through Harting’s work with Hospice, the camp is open to all bereaved children in the area. Registration is $25 per child, including snacks and lunches. Harting, a Liverpool resident and mother of two grown sons, recently chatted with Family Times about the project.

Q: What were you trying to accomplish with Camp Healing Hearts?

A: I was trying to offer children a way to grow and heal through their grief. As I got to know children and grief, I began to research what else was out there. I learned that many hospices across the country do summer camps for children.

If you go back to your childhood, what kinds of things do you remember? I certainly remember my summer camp experiences. I felt that as a way to make the most impact for children—to help them learn new coping skills, which is in essence what we’re teaching them, and how to cope with feelings and very big events in their life that are difficult to handle—what better way to teach them than at camp?

They are going to remember their camp experience. If they can put together through their life that camp experience along with what they learned at camp about coping with grief and loss, to me that seemed to make sense.

I started bugging the administration here in about 1995 or 1996 to do one. The first camp actually happened in 2002. So it took a lot of thinking and planning, and wishing and researching and bugging people. (Laughs.)

Q: Have you changed things as you’ve gone along, gotten feedback?

A: We add or take away things depending on the response from volunteers, the children and the parents. Every year we tweak the programming a little bit, and every year it just seems to run just a little more smoothly.

The other thing is I have volunteers who have been with me since the first camp. They know the score, they know exactly what to do, and they know the program. Every year I have new volunteers also, but I have this core group. So, we’re not training a whole new group of people every year.

I try to keep the ratio one volunteer for every two children. That’s part of keeping the safety. There are times when it is one volunteer for three children, but I like to have a 1-2 ratio.

Q: Explain how the grief issues are addressed.

A: Camp starts off with a group activity—singing songs and preparing for the day. Then they break off into “healing circles.” Every day the healing circle deals with a different topic. The first day it’s telling your story. The second and third days, it’s all about feelings: how to identify them and then what to do with them and how to express them. The fourth day, it’s about hope and how to move forward, and how to have a good and happy life even though somebody in your life has died.

In the healing circles, we have different activities—a game, an art activity—to help focus the expression (of emotion). When we do “hope,” we have them plant a plant to try to represent hope and how it grows.

After healing circles, we have snacks and go into expressive activities: art, drama and music. We incorporate all of them and help the children understand that expressive activities will also allow them to express their grief. After lunch we do all the fun camp things. The children also have the opportunity to go back and do more artwork if they want to, all day long.

At the end of the day we usually bring somebody in to relax and entertain the kids a bit. We bring in somebody from the MOST (Museum of Science and Technology), or a storyteller, someone who can introduce them to nature, or science or fun or something like that. And then we end the day with a ceremony where we do songs and just kind of reflect on the day.

A lot of the healing circle work begun in the morning continues throughout the day. So the time to talk is unlimited. Children talk when they’re swimming or boating, they talk with the leaders and with each other, and they talk with me. You’re kind of starting the day by opening them up, but all the other activities only continue to open them more and more. More things come into their heads and they find it is a very safe setting to talk about whatever’s on their minds.

Q: Do you encourage the parents to distinguish Camp Healing Hearts from other summer camps?

A: I encourage parents to talk about that so the children know what to expect. I send letters to the children who are coming to camp and explain it.

I also send letters to the parents and say, “Yes, tell them this is a camp they are going to come to and everybody who comes to this camp has had somebody in their family who died. Part of camp is going to be learning what to do with all those feelings that we have when someone we love dies. But also a part of camp is going to be swimming and boating and horseback riding and doing art and playing games and having a lot of fun.”

But most children don’t want to deal with grief. They don’t want to cry, they don’t want to feel sad. They don’t want to have all these negative feelings. What they want is to avoid them. So part of what we do is help them to understand that feeling those feelings and expressing them is ultimately going to help them to move toward the point where they won’t have to keep trying to avoid them because they’re going to go away. They’ll learn how to cope with them and that will lead them to being able to feel better and have happier lives.

Q: That must be rewarding to see that transition as the campers go through that week.

A: Absolutely. That is fabulous and it’s what keeps my volunteers coming back year after year. They come that first day and they see those children just. . . all closed up, all frightened, all scared, all sad, not wanting to be there, not wanting to deal with their grief, not wanting to be anywhere close to a camp that has to do with this topic.

Literally, by the end of the week they are like all-new children. They are happy, they’re excited, all open about their experience and talking about what’s gone on with them and embracing all the activities, including the healing circles where they’re talking about all the things that have happened to them and their families and in their life. They don’t want to leave camp. The children who came on the first day, kicking and screaming, saying, “I don’t want to be here, don’t make me stay,” on the last day are saying, “I’ll be back next year.” That’s amazing. It’s almost intoxicating. You just feel like you want to do it again and again and again.

Q: How do your volunteers prepare?

A: Every volunteer goes through training which includes learning about children and grief; which includes learning about child abuse and child abuse law; which includes learning about how to be a camp counselor. There is an orientation just before camp which goes through all the camp programming. I assign leaders to their groups. I have, in every group, at least one leader who is either a trained social worker, a trained psychologist, trained in children and counseling so that every single group the children are in has one leader who really has been trained professionally.

Some of the volunteers are high school counselors, some are social workers, some are marriage and family therapists, and some are psychologists. Others just kind of follow their lead. Those who have done this for five or six years know exactly how to do it. Even those who have not had that specific training or education, they have a lot of experience and now know how to help children in their grief.

Often they were just people who have worked with children enough to know that loss and grief are huge issues in children’s lives. A project that was helping children with that huge issue was something that was really important to them. And once they started, they were hooked. They kept coming back every year saying, “Count me in.” But every year I still need more volunteers. I like to have one teen volunteer in every group, too. And they are usually teens who have experienced a loss.

Q: In terms of grief support, do you think young people are underserved?

A: You know, I do. And I think more and more information needs to get out on how to cope with grief and how to help children and teen-agers cope with grief. I think a lot of times we don’t recognize the impact of grief on children’s lives.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in all your work with Hospice?

A: Being busy is my biggest challenge. I feel there is so much more to do. There are so many more programs that could be put into place for parents and teens and families and there is not enough time to do it.                                      

For more information, call Laura Harting at 634-1100, Ext. 211.