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Minn. camp helps children cope with loss

MANKATO, Minn. - When Auna Allen and her 7-year-old daughter Gabriel come across a penny, they believe Richard is with them in spirit. They share a cake on his birthday and send up a Mickey Mouse balloon to remember his fondness for the Disney ch...

MANKATO, Minn. - When Auna Allen and her 7-year-old daughter Gabriel come across a penny, they believe Richard is with them in spirit. They share a cake on his birthday and send up a Mickey Mouse balloon to remember his fondness for the Disney character.

Richard Allen died unexpectedly March 1, 2003, when his daughter was a few months shy of her second birthday.

Gabriel is an independent, outgoing girl who has been watching her friends and their fathers, and asking more questions about her own family.

Auna, too, has felt isolated by her grief.

That's why Camp Oz has been so helpful.

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The camp, started three years ago by Immanuel St. Joseph's hospice program, gives children ages 3 to 18 a chance to share their stories. Forty-one children participated in 2006; 46 came in 2007.

It doesn't make the pain go away, but it helps to "know that you are not alone," Auna said.

Camp Oz is a daylong camp on Lake Washington free to all children who have experienced the death of someone close to them, said Diana Carrigan, ISJ's bereavement coordinator.

The camp is named for an analogy between grief and "The Wizard of Oz."

The many-leveled comparison includes the tornado, representing the chaos caused by a death; Dorothy, who just wants things to be normal again; and the scarecrow, who is looking for a brain while grief makes it difficult to focus.

Three families who have dealt with loss are unequivocal in their support for Camp Oz.

Making connections

Camp Oz is an opportunity for kids who have experienced loss to connect with each other, Carrigan said. It is funded entirely by donations to ISJ's hospice program.

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While some schools offer grief programs, there's no similar camp in the region, she said.

Carrigan has spoken with parents about their children's sadness and saw a need for a venue to offer kids a chance to talk about it.

The loss doesn't have to be recent.

As kids grow older, their experience of loss changes, Carrigan said.

They may ask new questions as they move through different stages, and they may re-experience their loss once they go to school and make friends.

That was certainly the case with Auna and Gabriel, who came home one day with unfavorable comparisons to other families.

Outside forces can prompt children to re-examine a tragedy. Take 17-year-old Kellie Jansen.

When Kellie was five months old, her 2-year-old brother Kyle wandered to the shore of the frigid Maple River, where his mittens were found. Kyle was never seen again.

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A few years ago, the sheriff's department reopened the investigation.

The rural Good Thunder family had kept Kyle in their memories, but the new focus provoked feelings of sadness, even guilt.

If Kellie hadn't been born, her parents would have an easier time keeping track of Kyle, she said.

Kellie, who participated in Camp Oz in 2006, plans on volunteering for her second year in a row.

As children grow older, they can sometimes find new explanations for what happened.

Kelsey Halverson was 9 when her brother, Colby Crawmer, died in a car accident at age 15.

"When I was little I asked myself why this would happen to us, why would it happen to him," she said.

Since then, she has found some solace in religion and God.

"Now, I don't think Colby was meant to be here. ... Everything happens for a reason, there's no such thing as accidents," she said. "It wasn't meant to be anyone else."

Leaving loneliness

Loneliness is a feeling common to those who have lost close family members.

"I always thought that I was alone at school, that no one experienced a loss like I did," Jansen said.

Auna agrees that empathy is one of Camp Oz's strengths. "That is one place where you don't feel different," she said.

One of the first activities of the day involves the children gathering in groups to share their stories. Kids of similar ages are grouped together.

As a counselor, Jansen led a group of young children, mostly in their first few years of elementary school, in the story-sharing session.

Some kids shared more than others, but that wasn't important.

"There's this sense of being comfortable," she said. "They won't make fun of you or pressure you."

As a participant nearly two years ago, Jansen herself was quite nervous. It was the first time she had talked about Kyle among strangers, but she got through it.

Much of the day is spent using traditional camp activities, including a memory box created to honor the memory of the deceased.

Canine companions

The use of trained therapy dogs is a highlight for many of the children.

Everyone's situation is different, and not everyone reacts to loss the same way.

Halverson has had little trouble sharing her story.

"I was always able to talk about my brother," she said. "I could share anything I ever felt."

She, too, worked as a counselor last year with young children.

The fact that Kelsey was a teenager, not an adult, helped.

"The little kids thought they could talk to me," she said.

While it's understandable that parents would have questions about sending their child off to a camp to discuss a tender subject, those involved say it feels like a safe place.

"At Camp Oz, I knew I wasn't alone," Jansen said.

Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.

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