Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bonner Community Hospice Sponsors Kids Camp

Losing a loved one can be a devastating experience for anyone. But for children, the grieving process can be especially confusing, scary and isolating. For youth in Bonner and Boundary Counties there is help for the younger members of the community who are undergoing this journey. For 12 years, Bonner Community Hospice has hosted a Summer Kids Camp for any child age 8 to 17 who has lost a loved one.

Bambi Lassen, who is a licensed clinical social worker, is one of the volunteer directors for Kids Camp. Lassen says the camp is open to any child whether or not their loved one received hospice services.
Also, the child’s loss does not have to involve a parent or even a family member.

“Some children have a next door neighbor who they were close with and some have lost a teacher,” said Lassen. Whatever role the person played in the child’s life, the loss is real and the camp provides a special opportunity for kids to process their grief.

This year the camp takes place from June 19th to June 21st in Clark Fork. Kathryn Cooke, the Volunteer and Bereavement Coordinator for Bonner Community Hospice said they can take up to 20 kids and there is no charge to attend the camp.

“We are funded through grants and if there is a shortfall Bonner General Hospital covers the rest,” said Cooke.

A weekend of fun and play therapy, the camp allows children a chance to express their feelings in a variety of ways.

“They learn that all the feelings that go along with grief – including shock, denial, sadness and anger - are all okay and are normal,” said Lassen, who adds that children typically have a difficult time opening up about death.

There are many hours that go into the planning of the weekend so that the experience is both fun and therapeutic for the children.

“Trained therapists played a crucial role in developing the program,” said Lassen who is in her fourth year volunteering for the camp.

The location of the camp affords kids the opportunity to go on nature hikes, play organized games, play volleyball and participate in structured play in large open areas.

To allow the children to benefit to the fullest extent there is usually one volunteer for every 1 to 2 children.

If a child has lost someone recently, usually within the prior two months, camp organizers say it is wise to evaluate whether camp is appropriate for the child at that time in the grieving process.

“They are already processing so much,” said Lassen. “We are careful to protect the children to make sure it is the right time. If it’s not then we invite them back the next year.”

At the end of the weekend the facilitators ask the kids to share something they have learned over the two days they have been together. Lassen says many children say they have learned to deal with their anger, learned they are not alone or just finally felt they had someone who would listen to them.

“And some will say they learned a new song or learned to play volleyball,” said Lassen, who adds that many of the kids may not realize the benefit of the therapy until later. But the therapists know the children are learning how to express their grief.

“It’s a magical process that happens (over the weekend) and there are a lot of changes we see,” said Lassen, who in her practice specializes in working with children and families and has extensive experience in play and art therapy. “Kids become more confident with themselves, show an increase in self esteem and have a sense of acceptance that they are not the only ones going through it (the grieving process). It gives them hope that they can move forward.”

Because they serve children 8 to 17 years of age, the organizers of the camp witness a wide developmental range among the children. Lassen said it is not unusual to see the older kids being a role model for the younger ones, opening up and sharing their feelings followed by the younger children doing the same.

Lassen said they also teach the children to be aware of their body and how their feelings are being manifested. “It helps them know that feelings aren’t just in your head, they’re in your body. Mental health has a lot to do with physical health,” she said.

But the grief process extends far beyond the weekend, and organizers take steps to be sure that the children take with them some tools to help them in their difficult times.

In the past volunteers have given the children pencils as a reminder that they can write their feelings in a journal; a ball to bounce when they feel angry and much more.

Cooke said they do follow up with the families following camp by making phone calls and sending out an evaluation form, but to continue a support group for the children has been difficult due to the fact that they come from so many different areas.

“The kids come from a large geographic area,” said Cooke. “They come from near the Canadian border down as far south as Athol and then from Priest River to Clark Fork. It is hard to get kids to come together at the same time.”

But the children know that if they need help, they can always contact someone to help them process their feelings.

As for Lassen, she said that volunteering at Kids Camp is an experience she treasures.

“I feel honored to be able to be with the children and help them in their grief process,” she said. And while she emphasizes that it is not about her, Lassen said she too learns a lot.

“Every year I learn something new from the children that not only affects my life but also how I deal with families in the future,” said Lassen. “Everyone’s path is unique.”

To sign your child up for Bonner Community Hospice Kids Camp, contact Kathryn Cooke at 208-265-1185.

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