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Camp Braveheart provides therapeutic outlet for grieving children
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Marco Cantero, 5, jumps off of a water slide Wednesday at Camp Braveheart at Walters Barn in Lula. Camp Braveheart is a camp for children who have experienced the death of a loved one. - photo by Erin O. Smith

A little boy looked up at a towering, blow-up water slide. His friend was afraid to climb it, but the boy had words of advice.

“That’s why this is called Camp Braveheart,” he said. “Because we’re brave.”

Camp Braveheart, sponsored by Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center, is being held this week at Walters Barn in Lula. The day camp is for children who have experienced the death of a loved one, providing therapeutic activities each day of the week.

“This is open to the entire community,” said Karla Brookreson-Owens, counselor with Camp Braveheart. “It’s for any child who’s experienced a death loss of a parent, sibling, primary caregiver or grandparent.”

This year, 18 children ages 5-11 are participating. Brookreson-Owens said the children are split into two groups of nine based on their ages.

The groups spend the morning in either adventure-based activities outside, including the water slide, or in art therapy, painting wooden boxes with the names of their loved ones or decorating and filling journals with memories.

“So we combine both physical activities and expressive art, just to get general camaraderie and kids together,” Brookreson-Owens said.

Kids also have group sessions, when they pull chairs together in a circle and talk about the emotions they experience while grieving. The rules for group time, posted on the wall of Walters Barn, include, “All feelings are OK,” and “What’s talked about in group is private.”

“They’re here all week, and they get to know each other well,” Brookreson-Owens said.

The day camp runs through Thursday and ends with a family day Friday. Brookreson-Owens said Friday is a special day for the campers.

“When they’re all together with their families, they get a memory pillow,” she said. “So they chose a fabric from their loved one for it and it’s a really special time. It’s really neat, that time on Friday.”

Memory pillows may be made from the well-worn shirt of a late parent or the baby bedding of a late sibling.

The camp is operated by more than a dozen volunteers throughout the week, including an art therapist, music therapist and nurse.

“We know that when kids are grieving, every little boo-boo is important,” Brookreson-Owens said.

Volunteer Alexis Howell has been working with the camp every other year since she was 14.

“When I was in eighth grade, Karla (Brookreson-Owens) came to my school to talk for career day,” Howell said. “I was really intrigued by what she had to say, so afterward I stayed and asked if there was anything I could do to get involved. My own father passed away in 2008, so it was something that was really dear to me and still is.”

Carolyn Thomas started volunteering at the camp two years ago with her granddaughter Kristina Mallette.

“My granddaughter came because my daughter died,” Thomas said. “She was 14 and she wanted to help. And I said, ‘Well if you’re going to help, I’m going too.’”

Thomas has been a hospice volunteer, as well, for five years, but she said working in hospice became harder after her daughter’s death.

“They want you to talk about your family,” she said. “Some would say, ‘So how many kids do you have?’ and I would tear up. So I said I’d do other stuff, and here we are.”

The camp started in 1996 and reaches children through school counselors, private therapists, doctors’ offices, physicians and more.

Social worker and counselor Jen Sorrells said the camp moved to the Walters Barn a few years ago and has flourished since.

“We really have the space to kind of appreciate where we are and what we’re doing here,” Sorrells said.

Howell said while she’s there to volunteer, she always gains something from the children.

“I’m really inspired by them, because I see their strength and their courage,” she said. “I was 12 when my father passed away, but I see these kids who are younger than I was, and they teach me something new. It really gives me hope and lets me know that I am strong and they are strong, and we’re here to help each other.”

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