For Grieving Children, Long Island Camp Heals

February 8, 2012 Updated: February 8, 2012

NEW YORK—It’s never easy when you lose a loved one. For children, the healing process can be especially hard.

Camp Good Grief helps give youth coping with loss an opportunity to sort out their feelings in a nonthreatening, serene Long Island setting.

Professional staff is assisted by volunteers—currently 30 youth and 65 adults—who take six weeks of bereavement training.

“You learn all these things, and then you see all these kids, and you feel like ‘Oh my God it’s going to be so sad,’ but by the second day, they’re having such a good time,” said philanthropist Lesley Leben, a volunteer at the free camp for three years. “It’s a happy place. They love camp because they know everybody there has had a loss, and by the end of the week they’re transformed.”

For a week every summer, children of all ages travel to Peconic Dunes Camp, Southold, Long Island, for the camp, part of East End Hospice (EEH).

Before the camp, they receive a book in the mail, “Jeremy Goes to Camp Good Grief,” meant to acclimate children with the camp. The story follows a young man, mourning the loss of his mother, attending camp. He enjoys activities such as swimming, singing songs, and making ice cream sundaes. At first uncertain about the camp, Jeremy asks his dad if he can attend camp next year when the week ends.

Many children do go multiple years and many campers become volunteer counselors.

The camp alternates fun activities with group therapy and art therapy, allowing contemplation and expression while respecting the kids’ feelings.

“Kids have very short emotional spans,” said EEH’s Bereavement Coordinator Sarah Zimmerman. “They only want to be with the pain for a minute.”

Zimmerman helped start the camp 15 years ago. The number of children has grown from 29 to 150, yet “we’ve never had to turn anyone away,” she said.

Campers either live in the Hamptons, a resort community on Eastern Long Island, or are related to someone who lives there.

Priscella Ruffin, CEO of EEH, helped start the camp after feeling the need to pay better attention to kids dealing with loss.

“We really wanted a program that just addressed the children,” said Ruffin, “because they grieve differently than adults, and we wanted to be able to get them back into the mainstream and understand their feelings.”

One parent’s testimonial reads: “[My daughter] is able to explain her feelings, and now realizes that it is okay to cry and she doesn’t hide her emotion from me.”

“When I’m older,” writes a child, “I’d like to help the kids at Camp Good Grief.”

Raising Funds

The 13th Annual Valentine Salon Luncheon took place on Feb. 8 at 583 Park Ave. to raise money for Camp Good Grief. The event usually raises around $100,000. About 85 percent goes directly to the camp.

“Myself and a friend who are on the board [of East End Hospice] went to visit Camp Good Grief,” explained event co-founder Jacalyn Weinstein, “We were so moved at the work that was going on there that we said, ‘How do we raise awareness about this?’ So we said, ‘Let’s do a ladies luncheon around Valentine’s Day to bring awareness to New York City.'”

Marty Byrne, of Manhattan, recently lost her father. She heard about the event from a friend, and came to learn more about the camp.

“It’s been a tremendously difficult time for me,” she said. “So if I lost my father when I was this old and it paralyzed me, I can only imagine what it does for children. I wanted to do anything I could to support it—I think it’s a marvelous cause. I hope to learn more about it.”

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