A Tribute to Two Experience Camps Legends

In 2002 Clinical Director Cathy Spear and Program Director Martha Straus from Experience Camps in California were integrally involved in the formation of a girls’ grief camp program in Maine called Circle of Tapawingo (now Circle Camps for Grieving Children). After Circle and then collaborating with Manitou Experience (the first Experience Camps’ program, solely for boys), Cathy and Martha helped pilot a program for girls and boys in California. It was a huge success, and Experience Camps decided they were ready to host a camp program for girls in 2014. Martha and Cathy joined the Experience Camps staff, and after eight years at the helm of Experience Camps for girls, they stepped down this year. We wanted to celebrate their contributions and share some of their reflections!

Can you share more about how you first got involved with us? 

Cathy: I had been a clinical social worker in the Boston area since 1978  when the opportunity to help create this overnight grief-camp program was offered to me. I’d always had a real interest in grief and jumped at the chance. It also meant I got to go back to Tapawingo, the camp Martha and I both attended as campers for many years. That in and of itself was unbelievably special. So, in 2002, we launched our first week of Circle of Tapawingo, with 32 girls and 22 volunteer counselors. We were very green, and I don’t mean that in the environmental sense! I was the only social worker there for nearly 10 years and I learned so much each year as our numbers of campers and volunteers grew. I developed the original grief component, designed and led the grief activities, and recruited campers from all over New England….while also being a Board member, with a group of Tapawingo alum, including Martha. We designed the overall program, the projected growth, the increasingly complex needs as we gained expertise running a camp program. This was the overall skill set that I was able to bring to Experience Camps, where I have been in the role of Clinical Director for Girls in California. 


Clinical Director Cathy Spear


Martha: I also was part of the original team when Circle of Tapawingo was founded in 2002, and I remained a director of that organization for 10 years. The timing of Circle’s founding coincided with the death of my mother; the idea of helping kids cope with a profoundly difficult experience at a location I loved, felt safe at, and was eager to share, seemed to be a lucky and constructive bit of synchronicity. I was a cabin counselor, a lifeguard, ran arts & crafts, led nature walks, and was responsible for making sure that the kitchen provided decent food including an ample salad bar! When Circle Camps joined Experience Camps for satellite programs in California, I ambivalently left the bunk life and became the director of CircleWest for Girls. After two years, when Experience Camps opened up to girls, Cathy and I, and a solid core of counselors, joined Experience Camps.

What is your biggest takeaway from spending so much time with kids who are grieving? 

Cathy: My biggest take away is the interplay of grief and play. When kids learn to trust each other through playing and living together, they feel safer grieving together. We see that all week long. The casual intimacy of sharing space, sharing meals, walking to the pool together, even brushing teeth together……it fosters a familiarity that relaxes campers, calms down anxieties, and allows safety and openness to emerge.  Campers learn that they can talk about the person who has died, something that might not always feel safe at home. Through grief activities they may even learn language that makes these conversations easier.  And all of this leads to wonderful bonds of friendship, many of which sustain them through the year and, fingers crossed, will last a lifetime. 

Martha: Each year I have observed the almost palpable relief kids exhibit when they arrive at camp and realize that they are surrounded by others who “get it” and that they are not alone. The opportunity for children to belong, to share their life stories and feelings with empathetic others in a warm, safe place is clearly beneficial. I have been astounded at the speed at which an incoming group of diverse kids becomes a cohesive camp, full of noise, laughter, energy, and conversation. I’ve observed that with few exceptions, campers want to tell their stories, in their own way and at their own time. 


Program Director Martha Straus


What wisdom would you share with other clinical and program directors who will be joining our village?

Cathy: Our hope is to normalize grief and the many and varied faces it offers us. Kids each grieve differently and we want them to know their way is just fine. We can plant seeds for thought; it might be a long time before any of those seeds take root and we may never know if they do. Generally speaking, we offer time to play and time to share. As all of our promotional materials say, we want kids who have had such a profound death in their families to know that they are not alone, that many others have had similar experiences, that children and teens are resilient and can create wonderful and meaningful lives for themselves, despite these losses. They learn that from each other and they learn that from many of our wonderful volunteers.

Martha: Doing this good work has been profoundly important and satisfying to me. Each year we have come together to create a week of incredible fun, learning and healing, which campers and staff members can dip into long after August has passed. I am so proud and impressed by the staff, and at the end of each camp season, I have, sobbingly, thanked them for their generosity and warmth, patience, sensitivity and courage, humor, creativity, focus and truckloads of skills. I am amazed by them and so happy to have known all of these extraordinary people who have helped to create an important, loving and powerful place for all of us.

Thanks to both of you for all you have done for Experience Camps (including the intro of the salad bar), and for being the amazing humans that you are!

If this interview has gotten you excited about volunteering this summer at Experience Camps, or you know someone who would be great, learn more on our volunteer page.