Alix, Volunteer in a bereavement camp for children.
What is the mission of Camp Jackie?
Camp Jackie (formerly known as Camp Erin® Montreal) is the local chapter of a large network of bereavement camps for children in North America. Children who have lost a loved one are invited for a weekend of camp and grief activities. The camp has been running for three summers and is led by grief facilitators and programming staff. The camp itself happens every August and there are reunions and support group sessions throughout the year. We recently had a talent show and karaoke party and we will be hosting a Holiday party in December. These post camp events are special moments for us, because we have a chance to continue the connection with the campers throughout the year.
How did you come to be involved with the camp?
My sister was invited to become a volunteer by someone who was already involved with Camp. She thought it was something that we could do together, so she asked me to go with her. Before going up north to camp, volunteers must participate in grief education training in an effort to prepare the team for what we might encounter and how to best interact with the kids. This is particularly relevant since the deaths these children have experienced encompass a whole host of emotions. At the same time, these trainings enabled us to meet with the other volunteers, which helps create a cohesive team for such a poignant weekend. At the camp, we run an assortment of activities that include grief and non-grief activities such as memory boards to land sports to arts and crafts.
Last summer, I was teamed with a group of 5 to 7-year-old girls who most likely had never been to a sleepover before, so it was their first time being away from their family. On the first day, we had a fun-filled day including ice breaker activities so the kids can get to know one another. In the evening the grief facilitators ran a ceremony where the kids presented to the camp a photo of their special person who died and introduced us to them. They then put the photos on the memory board that stayed up for the whole weekend. On the second night, the campers took part in a “luminary ceremony” at the beach waterfront. The kids placed a lantern on a floating dock and shared with the camp something special that they wanted to say to their loved one before the dock was released into the water. The night ended with everyone enjoying a bonfire. These ceremonies are very intimate and precious, and they have a clear impact on all the campers.
Why is community involvement important to you?
I’m an advocate for helping the local community. All the things that we do, as little as we may think they are, even a little help can go a very long way. I lost my mother at age 21. Had I had access to a resource such as Camp Jackie at the time, it might have helped me to meet people who were also grieving and share ways of dealing. However, I must say that I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of people around me when I needed support. I felt I had to pay it forward and help as much as I can. It’s also a great feeling to know that you’re doing something that makes other people happy or doing your part to make the world a better place.
Have you had to overcome any challenges since you’ve started volunteering?
The kids who come to this camp are dealing with difficult situations, and it can be very emotional at times. It’s hard to see them trying to manage their grief. But the weekend is about the kids, not us. During the training, the volunteers are taught to be good listeners. Being available to help the kids is our main priority; we don’t share our experiences unless the campers ask us about them.
What have you learned from your involvement?
The kids, and especially the younger ones, have different ways of dealing with grief. They don’t really know how to deal with their emotions. Some of them will have anger outbursts, others will keep more to themselves. When you attend this type of camp, if someone is having a difficult or challenging moment it’s very likely that they’re missing their loved one. It’s impressive to see the range of emotions that accompany grief. As a volunteer, you also hope that there will be a lasting impact from the weekend, so that the kids don’t feel as alone after they’ve left the camp. A few campers told me that they didn’t really have anyone to talk to until they came to the camp and met all those other kids who were just like them. A father also said to me that his daughter was looking forward to coming to camp all year. That kind of testimony helps you understand how amazing this project is, and what it means to help children in need.