Get to Know Raleigh and Heather – Our Newest Board Members (and Sisters!)

Sisters, Heather Garson and Raleigh Leahy, grew up outside of Cleveland and moved to New York City after graduating from college.  Their younger brother, Brandon Garson – they called him BJ – followed them to New York but eventually moved down to Miami so he could kite surf year-round.  BJ died when he was 29 in an accident early on New Years Day, 2006.  He was a work hard, play hard person who jumped on every opportunity for adventure, almost like he knew his time was limited and needed to get as much in as he could while he was here.  In early 2006, they created the Brandon Garson Memorial Fund at the Miami Foundation to raise money in BJ’s memory.  Along with a group of BJ’s friends, they hosted annual poker tournaments to raise money for the foundation and, while they distributed some of what was raised to the Boys and Girls Club in Miami, they were always looking for the right organization for which they could really make an impact.  BJ was a camper – he was a very serious kid who came out of his shell and really excelled at camp every summer – so they started looking at different camp-type charitable organizations.  While they found worthy charities, they couldn’t find anything they could really get involved in, until…

Last Spring, Raleigh was flipping through Westport Magazine and read about Sara Deren and Experience Camps.   She put the article on her bulletin board to follow-up.  Before she had a chance to reach out to Sara, the addition of new puppies in each of their families and a bit of serendipity brought them together at a puppy training class and that is how their relationship with Experience Camps began.

Heather and Raleigh’s dad passed away from cancer less than 4 years before their brother died. Even though they are here and their mother is alive, they feel they lost their family and have struggled with feeling different from other people and knowing that the people who knew them when they were growing up look at them differently. They feel fortunate to have each other and that they could navigate their way through grief as adults, but they still don’t know the right answers to questions like “do you have other siblings?”.  Raleigh and Heather shared this with us:

“We were recently asked a similar question – ‘is it just the two of you?’ and we hesitated and told the truth.  It was almost a relief that the person responded that the same thing happened to her mother – not because we want more members in this ‘club’, but because she wasn’t sorry she asked and didn’t look at us with pity.  We know this is what the kids who come to camp feel like every day. We don’t have to confront our different-ness daily, just on New Years Eve and when we are asked awkward questions, but we know that’s not the same for kids who experience the loss of a family member; they are reminded every day that someone is missing, and the people they interact with every day think they are different and aren’t sure how to talk to them or what they should say.  To be part of an organization that tries to turn a life-changing loss into a positive life experience is a real gift.  It’s cliché to say ‘if I can change just one person’s life’…but that is the opportunity we are getting by joining the board, so thank you.”

Raleigh and Heather smiling