There were a lot of big feelings this year. We know that seems obvious when talking about a camp for grieving kids, but this summer everything just felt…extra. The happy felt happier. The heavy felt heavier. The sharing went deeper. The connections were stronger. We gave it 150%, and we got back even more. It was something special.
This summer, we saw more than ever how much kids needed a place where other people “get it” about grief. They rediscovered permission to be kids – to do a cannonball jump into a lake and drink milkshakes and dance with wild abandon. They found space to press on the tender parts of their pain: to share, cry and reflect without judgment or responsibility for how that makes someone else feel.
Camp is a week in which grieving kids can be their full selves – and be celebrated for it. That’s what we mean when we call it the #bestweekever, and we are proud and honored to share some of the stories and impact of camp with you here.
Now onto the numbers…
# campers enrolled: 925
% campers returning from prior year(s): 94%
# of states campers came from: 39
# of countries campers came from: 9 (including Colombia, Japan, and Ireland!)
# of volunteers: 432
% volunteers and staff returning from prior year(s): 73%
# of times (approximately) people at camp chanted “Best! Week! Ever!” during camp: 207,150 times (1,381 campers/staff * 5x chant in a row * 3x per week * 10 programs)
# of candles lit for a person who died: approximately 1,274
# of giggles we heard at camp (infinite)
We have thousands upon thousands of highlight moments we wish we could share with you because each camper and volunteer from each of our 10 programs experiences their own memorable moments every single day during the week. But for the sake of space, we had to choose just a few. Here are a couple of our favorite moments and testimonials that capture the essence of camp!
Highlight #1: A winning “Shark Tank” (Experience-Camps style) idea…
One recent programming activity we offered this summer was “Shark Tank,” based on the hit CBS TV show in which inventors try to convince a panel of wealthy judges to invest in their business idea. In our Experience Camps version, campers try to convince camp staff to “invest” in a programming idea to be run the following summer. Each bunk practices their pitch for hours, has to stand in front of a “live audience” (our campers), and sell their ideas to the judges, even answering real business questions.
At our camp in Pennsylvania, the winning bunk on the girls’ side was the youngest bunk (ages 8 and 9). They came up with the idea of having a giant birthday party for every camper’s person who died. The party would include cake, birthday decorations, lots of kazoos, and everyone singing “Happy Birthday” at the same time, filling in their person’s name at the appropriate spot.
Their idea was SO good that our programming team snapped into action and purchased all the birthday supplies (including multiple colorful cakes from a nearby bakery) to put this celebration into action the very next day! It was a surprise for everyone, including winning Bunk A–who found out they won at the party. In the end, all of the campers and staff won because it was a fantastic activity that honored grief, resilience, and joy all at once–and with cake.
Here’s a video of the festivities:
Highlight #2: From camper to counselor…
“Nine years ago, on April 20, 2013, I watched my father unexpectedly die in my arms. That same year, I stepped foot into the happiest place on earth and, no, it wasn’t Disneyland. I had found my soon-to-be safe haven.
Experience Camps is a place for grieving children like myself. It is a place of joy and pain, dancing and crying. Although centered around grief, it still manages to be the most fulfilling and happy place I have ever been.
As a camper I experienced an overflow of love and acceptance from campers and counselors who have endured the same pain that I had. I gained coping skills and an environment that allowed me to be undeniably myself. This year, It was finally my turn to give back everything that this camp gave to me.
Last month I earned my spot on the other side: I became a counselor. I had the opportunity to give all the love that I received within the past nine amazing years to seven astounding little human beings, my campers, who were just the same age as I was nine short years ago.
This place is my second home, and I am so so grateful to have shared it with so many amazing people. They are the true definition of a rainbow after a storm.”
–Christine Franklin, Volunteer for Experience Camps in California (2nd from right below)
Highlight #3: Notes from parents and caregivers
“We picked Finn up from camp today. I was crying at the kindness and bonds that I witnessed in the short time I was there. Everyone was SO nice! Finn really really loved camp. I can’t share my gratitude enough.. I know all of the kids there have been through extremely difficult events. I was just overwhelmed with emotion at how special this week must have been for them. I know how special it was for Finn.” – Melissa M.
“Thank you for giving my girl a place where grieving kids are ‘all together’ It is so helpful to us as caretakers because it can be so hard helping them navigate through grief. We don’t know what they need and we try so hard to figure it out. You guys help us share that tough privilege of having a front row seat in her grieving process.” – Ricki L.
“It was a life transforming week for my daughters. I could not hold my tears back when I picked them up, seeing the friendships they made, the healing they found, and the community that understood. Thank you, Experience Camps staff, for what you do to change the life for the children and us as well.” –Jennifer J.
Highlight #4: Some favorite camp memories
Are we counting the days until the next #bestweekver in summer 2023? Of course we are and we know many of you are too! Until then, we’ll keep sharing memories throughout the year and anticipating making all the new ones!
Wow! These camps sound amazing! It’s nice to see something so positive, especially when it comes from loss.