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Camp Erin offers a weekend for kids coping with loss

A camper at Camp Erin stands in front of her grief board.

Cece Scott/Globe and Mail Update

Erin Metcalf died of liver cancer in 2002, at the age of 15. One of the attendees at her funeral was former major-league baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer, who had met the teenager through the Make-A-Wish Foundation in the late 1990s. He and his wife Karen were so moved by the young woman that when she died, their Moyer Foundation helped found Camp Erin in her name.

Just north of Parry Sound, Ont., Camp Erin is a place where children who are experiencing the death of a loved one can spend a weekend with others like them: Kids ages six to 17 who are experiencing isolation and anxiety of loss and need the comfort and confidence to move forward.

The camp turns 10 this year: What was once a simple day camp is now a weekend-long sleepover free to all 120 attendees, thanks to the Jays Care Foundation and other corporate and private donors. The Globe and Mail spoke with Lysa Toye, clinical director of Camp Erin Toronto and Dr. Jay Children's Grief Centre.

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How is Camp Erin the same – and different – than other summer camps?

A variety of poignant grief ceremonies, including each child posting a picture of their loved one on a grief board (counsellors and volunteers also participate in these ceremonies) are held in tandem with a diverse gamut of high-energy activities, including archery, high ropes and canoeing. There is also art, drumming and a confidence-boosting talent show.

Why is this camp important for both kids and families?

We strongly believe that the Camp Erin experience is life-changing. Family members and caregivers experiencing their own grief, while simultaneously helping their child to grieve, are often overwhelmed and feel helpless. Grief left unchecked can lead to depression, behavioural issues, suicide and substance abuse.

Much of what is addressed at camp is the isolation kids feel around their grief; it is a poignant experience for the campers to have the chance to go away for three days, (oftentimes, these kids have never been up north) with other people their own age, forming a bond over their loss. Camp Erin is a safe place for young people to identify with other kids who are feeling the same emotions, including anger, worry, guilt and often, a "Why me?" outlook.

When kids come back from camp, at ease and with the confidence to talk about their grief, it gets passed along to their parents.

What have you learned about what kids need in their grieving process?

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The strongest feedback we get from both the kids and the parents is that being at camp with other kids who are also going through the same feelings and emotions is a powerful experience. It is incredibly comforting for kids to be able to normalize their grief, to speak out and to express their feelings in their own unique way. The sense of stigma that families often feel is alleviated. Most importantly, these young people are given a toolbox that allows them to work through their emotions and cope with their grief.

This interview has been condensed and edited

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