Kids at this summer camp go in heartbroken but come out stronger than ever.

'There isn't a simple recipe for grief.'

Liz Eddy was only 9 years old when she lost her father to cancer, but it wasn't until she reached college that she finally let herself grieve.

"I pretty much ignored it completely and tried to go back to normal life," said Eddy. "There isn't a simple recipe for grief."

Over time, of course, grief snuck up on her, and she had to face it. That's when she heard about Experience Camps — weeklong not-for-profit summer camps designed to help kids cope with the death of a loved one, free of charge.


Experience Camps campers with dog mascot. All photos courtesy of Experience Camps.

The camps were started back in 2009 by Sara Deren, whose husband ran Camp Manitou, a boys' camp in Maine. That first summer they had 27 campers, and now they have almost 400 in three different locations across the country.

Eddy volunteered to be a counselor at Experience Camps back in 2013, and she now serves on the camp's board of directors. Like 90% of the campers, she simply can't stay away.

Experience Camps give all the kids (and counselors) the chance to deal with their emotions and grief in their own time, in their own way, while surrounded by other people who truly "get it."

"Most of the kids they know haven't had someone close to them die, and it makes them feel different and alone," wrote Deren in an email. "Being at a camp like this shows them that they are not alone, gives them an opportunity to talk about their person who died, and release some of the weight they carry around with them."

Campers hanging out.

In everyday life, there's often a lot of pressure to keep grief hidden, Eddy notes, even when around family members who are experiencing it too. "[The campers] don’t want their families to hurt anymore," Eddy explained.

At Experience Camps — where there's an underlying understanding that everyone is struggling with similar feelings day-to-day — that pressure seems to melt away.

When the campers aren't working through their grief, it's also just a great camp filled with summer activities and lifelong friendships.

Human pyramids are always fun.

And there's nothing better than bouncy water toys.

One of the boys camps during College League (like color war).

Anyone who's been to camp knows how quickly bonds can form there. Whether kids are doing mundane things, like brushing their teeth, or exciting things, like learning to water ski, camp friends become their second family. For kids who've experienced a great personal loss, their camp family is often the only group of people with whom they feel comfortable being completely vulnerable.

Eddy recalled one instance were she saw a bunch of boys having a great time on stand-up paddleboards. They told her later that the excursion prompted them to go back to their bunks and show each other pictures of the family members they lost over laughter and tears. The boys ended up a whole lot closer for it.

The camps emphasize that the best way to cope with loss is often through finding a balance between grief and joy.

"It's OK to grieve for someone and still find happiness in life," Deren wrote over email.

The camp offers sharing circles where campers can talk openly about their feelings with clinicians and share memories of lost loved ones, but that's not the only place for "breakthrough moments." These moments are just as likely to occur during a rousing basketball game or while walking through a field after a bonfire.

"You just don’t know when [grief is] going to come out, but the most beautiful thing is everyone is open and aware and ready to listen,” said Eddy.

Camper and counselor on luau night.

One night, Eddy was walking back to her bunk after the final bonfire of the week — a time when many kids finally open up — with a 9-year-old girl who had been closed off most of the week ... until that very moment.

"She looks up at me and says, 'I didn’t cry,'" Eddy recalled. "I started to go into mom mode saying, 'No. it’s okay! You don’t have to cry. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel anything!' And she stopped me and said, 'No, but you don’t understand. I feel her. I feel my mom in my heart.' And we both immediately just start crying in the middle of this field."

At the end of the summer, campers leave Experience with the tools they need to continue working through their feelings as they grow into adulthood and to help others do the same.

Remembrance stones for people who've passed.

Campers learn there's no one magic way to get through grief, that everyone processes it in their own unique way, and that the feelings that go along with it are going to change over time. They leave knowing there will be great days and terrible days, but that they've got a support system that will always be there for them when they need it most.

It comes down to a story the counselors tell the campers about an invisible string: Even though they can't see it, this string ties all the campers and counselors of Experience together and acts as a constant reminder they are never alone.

Check out a video on Experience Camps here:

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On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

She split the audience members into two groups based on their eye color. Those with brown eyes were given preferential treatment by getting to cut the line and given refreshments while they waited to be seated. Those with blue eyes were made to put on a green collar and wait in a crowd for two hours.

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Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

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In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

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