Around 20 children filed into an art room of the Carlisle Arts Learning Center Saturday, some smiling, others making funny sounds and giggling amongst themselves.
They took their seats at a wrap-around table, two of them excitedly discussed something inaudible.
All of these children were about to participate in an art project to help them cope with the loss of a loved one.
The project, a memory box consisting of decorated rocks honoring the memory of a loved one, was just one of many therapeutic activities and sessions comprising a two-day grief camp held by Camp Koala at CALC. The camp was offered to grieving children and teens Saturday and Sunday free of charge.
Celeste Wade, an art therapist who has been involved with Camp Koala for four years, led the children in their memory box creation.
“(The camp) is extremely meaningful because these kids are dealing with a loss and the trauma of grief,” Wade said. “As a therapist, those are very serious things to deal with. This is a place where they can come and have fun and they don’t necessarily need to have words to explain what they are going through. We provide them with so many outlets to express themselves.”
While explaining the project to the children, Wade discussed a box she made to cope with her own grief, tapping into one of the camp’s key components: a mutual understanding of loss shared not only between campers, but between campers and camp staff as well.
“They are meeting with people who are going through similar experiences as them,” Wade said. “I think them making that connection is incredible and it is so important for them after experiencing this loss to be able to come together and talk to each other and learn from each other.”
“We try to model a healthy grief journey so adults that have also had that journey are modeling that behavior for the kids,” said Lisa Liebetrau, Camp Koala founder and executive director. “They model it for each other.”
Other camp activities included mask making, African bracelet making and a grief Jenga, a giant Jenga tower with blocks containing questions about past, present and future events in each child’s experience. The camp concluded with a special visit from several popular superheroes and Disney princesses.
Activities and exercises were interspersed with opportunities for campers to share their personal experiences and address their grief head-on.
“Where they really address (their grief) is in the sharing circles,” said Cheri Getty, a Camp Koala Big Buddy. “That is where the elephant in the room comes out a little. We do all these fun things, but (we) are also constantly addressing what they are experiencing. Sometimes we have trouble at first getting them to talk about certain things, but then they will see, ‘oh, this person is talking about this, so I will talk about it now.’”
Though grief is a process with many stages over a potentially long period of time, camp staff aimed to make the most of their two days to create a positive lasting impression on campers.
“I think it comes from (the campers) being able to tap into their own emotions,” Getty said. “When they take and experience other kids and adults going through what they are going through, it instills a lot of life lessons in them to be empathetic — even towards their own feelings.”
But in addition to effectively managing grief through expression and exercise, the camp strove to dispel misconceptions surrounding the grieving process.
“When I say I run a grief camp, people will say that they feel sorry for me, but I tell them, ‘don’t; it is not a sad place,’” Liebetrau said. “You can see it in the kids. They feel so comfortable in a safe place where they can talk about their emotions. This is a safe place for them to open up and be a kid again. Grieving kids are allowed to have fun too.”