(May 5, 2008)
My husband often volunteers for an organization called Comfort Zone Camp. It’s a free camp for grieving children who have lost loved ones.
It’s a fantastic program for the kids…they come to camp….have fun, play games, talk, interact with others, participate in healing circles, roast marshmallows and sing really loud karaoke. =)
My youngest sister-in-law was the first in the family to volunteer and now it’s become a family affair.
This past weekend my husband, my sister-in-law, her husband and her mother-in-law were all volunteers. I was also there as a volunteer photographer. We were frequently teased that our “family” was taking over the camp.
I often wondered what this camp was like because when my husband would come home from a weekend camp…he would be quiet and reclusive. He needed space. He reflected on things. I never really understood why.
I do now.
There were approximately 54 children at this camp session….which means there were approximately 54 big buddies, an additional number of facilitators, counselors and helpers. There were a lot of people.
I followed one group in particular to take pictures of their activities… a younger group (ages 6 to 11). When first meeting them, you’d never know they had recently lost a loved one. They all laughed and smiled like average kids. But these were not average kids in any sense of the word. These were kids who have had to deal with loss….incredible--devastating loss…something a child should never have to deal with at such a young age.
I photographed them playing four-square, eating breakfast, running races, knocking each other over, lifting each other up, chasing each other, catching frogs, singing karaoke and roasting marshmallows.
What I didn’t photograph was what affected me so deeply.
During my time at the camp I talked with a few of the kids…some ran up to me excitedly when they saw the camera…others hid from me. Some curiously kept their eyes on me…others didn’t even see me. A few had questions for me when they learned I was from Hawaii. “Is Hawaii beautiful?” “Do you miss it?” Yes….and yes. =)
At dinner, my husbands little buddy smiled when he noticed they both had a healthy serving of pineapple on their plates.
“You like pineapple?”, he asked.
My husband grins and takes a bite. “Definitely.”
My husband looks up at me and smiles. Then he turns to his little buddy, “why do you think she’s giggling?” His little buddy looks at me quizzically as I continue to giggle.
Then, suddenly…his eyes widen and he laughs. “Oh! Because you’re from Hawaii!”
I nod and we all laugh.
“I’ve never met anyone from Hawaii that doesn’t like pineapple,” he says just before taking another bite.
My husband smiles and asks, “Do you know anyone else from Hawaii?”
His little buddy stops to think about this…“nope.” =)
After dinner and an extremely loud karaoke session (don’t get me wrong…karaoke was hoppin…it was just really loud) it was time for the bon fire. During the bon fire kids are encouraged to write down a memory of or a note to a loved one on a piece of paper and then once their group is called up they throw it into the fire and watch the ashes rise into the air...a ritual of sorts.
When the camp leader started calming everyone down and getting them ready for this ritual I looked around for the other camp photographer. He was nowhere to be found. Realizing this wasn’t an appropriate time for pictures; I put the camera away and sat down with my husbands group. I don’t know why I stayed. Something seemed to keep me there.
Before the groups were called up, my husband was asked to sing. He sang “You can close your eyes” by James Taylor…a song his father used to sing quite often. My heart stopped beating as he started to sing. I was so nervous for him. There were well over 100 people sitting around him….watching him…listening intently to his acapella version of this lullaby and he didn’t seem at all nervous. He sang beautifully. Even the grasshoppers seemed to quiet down for his performance. It was the perfect segway for what came next…
Children were called up by groups and as they circled the fire, one-by-one they threw their memory or note into the flames.
“In memory of my mother.”
“In memory of my father.”
“In memory of my sister.”
I was finally learning who these wonderful children had lost…and it hurt. I learned the adorable “little” that asked me so many questions about Hawaii had lost her mother…I learned another “little” that kept jumping in front of my camera had lost both of his parents.
“In memory of my brother.”
“In memory of my grandpa and grandma.”
The flames kept burning, getting brighter as more memories and notes were thrown in…more and more sniffles and quiet moans could be heard now. I started regretting staying.
The “little” sitting next to me began to cry. Every ounce of me wanted to throw my arms around her and hold her, cry with her, reassure her…but it wasn’t my place. Her big buddy started rubbing her back…my husband passed her a tissue and squeezed her shoulder…another “little” hugged her…it was heart-breaking.
As the ceremony came to a close…and all memories and notes had been thrown into the fire…one of the younger “little’s” began to sob. He couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old. He started crying out for his mother, asking where she was, asking why she wasn’t there and pleading with his big buddy that he wanted to see her.
It was gut-wrenching.
His sister was also at the camp, though in another group. She ran to him and embraced him.
Campers were encouraged to stay by the fire as long as they needed to and once finished to make their way back to the main cabin.
I stood up, told my husband I’d see him tomorrow and quickly walked back to the main cabin where I turned in the camera and bolted for my car.
Once inside my car…I sobbed. I sobbed for all of those children, I sobbed for their lost loved ones...imagining them looking down on these children and weeping themselves because they can’t embrace them. I sobbed thinking about how compassionate and brave my husband and the other big buddies were for volunteering their time to help these kids through these terrible situations. Situations most people would run from.
When I got home that night...and tried to sleep….I heard that little boy at the bon fire crying for his mother. I had to think back to what I saw him doing earlier in the day; racing one of the other little buddies out in the field at camp. They raced forwards, sideways and backwards. It was hilarious and so much fun to watch. There was a lot of falling down and laughing.
I didn't hear the crying anymore.
I guess that’s what Comfort Zone Camp is all about really….laughing, running, falling down, crying, getting back up and laughing again.