ROCKINGHAM — More than 40 children from Richmond and surrounding counties spent Thursday at Camp Haven — a place where little kids learn skills to help them cope with big losses.
Kristina Leyden, CEO of Richmond County Hospice, provided a tour of the theme-decorated main office building that looked like a magical land beneath the sea.
Sandy Black, bereavement coordinator for Hospice, explained the decor.
“We’ve done this camp for 20-plus years, is my understanding, and this is my third one,” she said. “Last year, we did ‘Inside Out’ as the movie theme, so this year we’re trying ‘Finding Nemo.’ We’re talking about stages of grief, like Marlin went through in the movie. We’re discussing with the kids, in a fun way and with lots of activities, the denial, the anger, the bargaining, depression and acceptance.”
Black explained stations were set up outside and the children rotated by age groups.
“For denial, they’re doing quilt squares to tell their story,” she continued. “At the anger station they are making slime and stress balls and dream catchers. At ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ it’s just talking about how how you make choices and bargain, so they’re playing an interactive game and winning prizes. At depression, we have a feelings game with a beach ball: they catch it, and wherever it says an emotion, they talk about that. And they do a chicken dance with Mr. Neal Watkins.”
Watkins serves as chairman of the Richmond County Hospice Board of Directors.
“He brought his chicken, and so at the end of their session they’re dancing to realize that can help you get through your depression, Black added. “And for acceptance, they make memory boxes so that they can put special mementos of their loved one in their memory box.”
Children ages 5 through 12 were separated into age-similar groups and assisted by 44 teen volunteers and Richmond County Schools counselors and social workers.
“We have the five-year-olds together, because they are going to understand words differently,” Leyden said. “Then you have first, second and third (grades) together, and then fourth and fifth together. This way, they can talk a little more in depth with children able to understand and express themselves, and they can do more play therapy with the younger ones. So it’s really thought out — not only with the help and the stations, but also by age.”
“Actually this year, which was nice, we have at least four from Moore County,” Black added. “Last year we had some from Anson County. But this is predominantly Richmond County. We have 41 campers right now, and probably 35 are from Richmond County. We send our applications out to the schools. I also took applications to the department of social services and N.C. Mentor.”
Leyden said the camp is not only about the grief children experience from losses to death.
“It’s different things: divorce, death of a parent, death of a sibling, death of a grandparent, foster care, dad in prison,” she said. “I know of one family where the mother lost custody. They’re not allowed to have contact until they’re 18, and that’s not a death, but it’s a huge loss. My husband’s deployed, and that’s why I put my kids in this year. It’s a lot of ‘different,’ but then they meet each other and they see, ‘Hey, I’m not different.’”
Black said this year’s theme emphasized that point.
“That’s what was neat about the movie, ‘Finding Nemo.’ We had Marlin and Dory and they had that friendship,” Black explained. “Just having a friend to get you through it. And hopefully today they’re going to make some new friendships to help them get through it. ‘Just keep swimming’ is my favorite quote from the movie, because you never give up.”
Most of the referrals for this year’s camp, Black said, came from the applications sent out to the schools. She said the district has always been supportive of Camp Haven, and appreciative of its impact on children facing hard situations.
“I think it’s important to ‘just keep swimming,’” Black added. “We give them a positive outlook that — regardless of how bad or sad you can be — you’ve got to keep going. Hopefully, they will all just keep swimming.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673.