Giancarla, Camp Erin coordinator, joins the campers for a final goodbye at the camp's closing ceremony. (COURTESY)

Camp Erin supports grieving children

PALM BEACH GARDENS  |  Camp Erin, a bereavement camp for children and teens, hosted more than 50 campers March 22-24 in Homestead. Campers from throughout South Florida attended Camp Erin to participate in a fun-filled weekend that also addressed therapeutic coping techniques for children and teens who have lost a loved one. 

Originally founded by the Moyer Foundation in 2002, Camp Erin was named for Erin Metcalf, who passed away from liver cancer at the age of 17. When Jamie Moyer, renown pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, met Erin through the Make a Wish Foundation, he recognized her fighting spirit which would live on after her death. Erin’s concern and love for other sick children and their families came from a place of selflessness, so Moyer decided to memorialize Erin through a camp that would ensure young people suffering from a personal loss could benefit from a camp support system and begin to find peace. 

Camp Erin has grown into a national organization through the Moyer Foundation, with camps throughout the United States. Florida recently established a Camp Erin in 2013 that travels all over the state’s east coast, attracting campers from Palm Beach County and beyond. Camp Erin is structured as a weekend sleep-away camp and combines traditional camp activities with grief education and emotional and community support. 

Catholic Hospice partners with Camp Erin to provide administrative staff who are experts in bereavement. For more than 30 years Catholic Hospice, has served the South Florida community. Established in 1988, Catholic Hospice has dedicated its services to meeting the needs of people with a life-limiting illness and their loved ones. Hospice care involves medical supervision, emotional support, spiritual guidance, and pain management. The Catholic Hospice Choice provides a journey filled with love, care, compassion, and respect for human dignity by highly trained professionals.

Camp Erin is available at no cost to participants and, although in affiliation with Catholic Hospice, welcomes all faiths and backgrounds. Gian Carla Santayana, bereavement camp coordinator, was recently appointed by Catholic Hospice to run the camp based on her experience with childhood bereavement. 

“When a loved one dies, we often cope by losing ourselves in the business of the funeral and other arrangements. Children don’t fall into that tendency and so they are often forgotten,” Santayana said. “It’s our job at Camp Erin to make sure they receive the attention they need to cope with their loss.”

Students from Florida universities who are pursuing degrees in counseling gain experience in the field by assisting camp counselors. Some of them even attended the camp themselves and were inspired to pursue a career in childhood bereavement. 

“There’s at least one camper every year who ages out of the program and decides to return as a volunteer counselor as part of their college studies,” Santayana said. 

Camp activities include campfires, water sports, team building exercises, mindfulness activities, plus music and art therapy. 

“Music is a very effective tool for emotional expression,” Santayana added. “We encourage campers to write lyrics that express how they feel about their loss and channel their grief through music.” 

A key part of the camp’s events are the remembrance ceremonies Santayana and the other counselors plan for incoming campers. The ceremonies encourage campers to honor the memories of their loved ones by placing their picture on a beautifully decorated memory board and then sharing something special about their loved one. Another ceremony centered on building community through the commonality of loss. 

“This camp session, we implemented a new ceremony called Luminaries, where each camper created a little house out of a milk carton and decorated it to reflect their loved one,” Santayana said. “Then we placed tea lights in the cartons and placed these houses all together on a raft. We set them afloat in the camp pool at night and watched as this little village glowed on the water. All these houses showed campers that they are not alone in their grief.” 

Lorenzo Garcia, a 12-year-old camper from Miami, expressed that the feeling of community the camp inspired in him is important to coping with grief. 

“Camp Erin helped me by expressing my feelings and talking to other people about what I’m going through—no one is alone.” 

Camp Erin also takes into consideration that some campers might need individualized attention as well. “If a camper lost a loved one due to an illness, they often have unanswered questions about the medical proceedings regarding the way they died,” Santayana said. “We have physicians available to answer children’s questions—it’s a great resource.”