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

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:

Terence Power / TikTok

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Love is what united Marie-Claire and David Archbold, who met while taking a photography class. "We went into the darkroom to see what developed," they joke—and after a decade of marriage, they know firsthand the deep commitment and connection romantic love requires.

All photos courtesy of Marie-Claire and David Archbold

However, their relationship became even sweeter when they adopted James: a little boy with a huge heart.

In the United States alone, there are roughly 122,000 children awaiting adoption according to the latest report from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. While the goal is always for a child to be parented by and stay with their biological family, that is not always a possibility. This is where adoption offers hope—not only does it create new families, it gives birth parents an avenue through which to see their child flourish when they are not able to parent. For the right families, it's a beautiful thing.

The Archbolds knew early on that adoption was an option for them. David has three daughters from a previous marriage, but knowing their family was not yet complete, the couple embarked on a two-year journey to find their match. When the adoption agency called and told them about James, they were elated. From the moment they met him, the Archbolds knew he was meant to be part of their family. David locked eyes with the brown-eyed baby and they stared at each other in quiet wonder for such a long time that the whole room fell silent. "He still looks at me like that," said David.

The connection was mutual and instantaneous—love at first sight. The Archbolds knew that James was meant to be a part of their family. However, they faced significant challenges requiring an even deeper level of commitment due to James' medical condition.

James was born with congenital hyperinsulinism, a rare condition that causes his body to overproduce insulin, and within 2 months of his birth, he had to have surgery to remove 90% of his pancreas. There was a steep learning curve for the Archbolds, but they were already in love, and knew they were committed to the ongoing care that'd be required of bringing James into their lives. After lots of research and encouragement from James' medical team, they finally brought their son home.

Today, three-year-old James is thriving, filled with infectious joy that bubbles over and touches every person who comes in contact with him. "Part of love is when people recognize that they need to be with each other," said his adoptive grandfather. And because the Archbolds opted for an open adoption, there are even more people to love and support James as he grows.

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