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:

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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