The day after the attacks of 9/11, 13 years ago, Pittsburgher Sandi Lando Welch founded Circle Camps for Grieving Children in Maine, says Lynn Zelenski, who is coordinating the camp’s Pittsburgh opening this summer.
On the day after 9/11, Zelenski says, Welch was talking to the owner of an overnight camp where she had spent summer weeks as a child.
“‘I’ve got to go – two of our campers lost parents in the World Trade Center yesterday,’” the camp owner said to Welch. “‘We’re struggling to find a way to help.’”
“She knew right way what to do,” Zelenski says.
The Pittsburgh version of the camp is a free, week-long overnight camp, starting out for girls only, ages 9-14. It will be held Aug. 17-22 at the Jewish Community Center’s Emma Kaufmann Camp in Morgantown, West Virginia and open to kids of all backgrounds.
“What sets us apart is the continuum we hope to build with our girls,” says Zelenski. “The girls who come to the program can stay with that program for many, many years.” In fact, some of the girls who began as campers in Maine 13 years ago are now counselors there.
Those attending may have lost a parent for many different reasons: accident or illness, violence or drug overdose. “It’s just a time for these kids to be in an environment where everybody is on the same playing field,” she says. “It is not meant to be a week of therapy. It is meant to be a week of fun.”
Of course, the camp includes activities meant to show the girls they are not alone and help them acquire new ways of coping. In arts and crafts, for instance, they will be invited to create a memory box as a place for photos and other mementos of the parent who is gone, or simply as a storing place for a diary, to use as an outlet. In “Circle Time,” a camp social worker will encourage the kids to talk about their experiences.
“It’s not anything that is required or forced,” she says, adding, “We’re always inspired at how eager these kids are to have a conversation in a group where everyone has lost a parent.”
Organizers are hoping for 40 participants. The only requirement is transportation to and from Squirrel Hill at the beginning and end of camp, and that the child is ready for a week away from home. Zelenski says the camp will be adding boys in future years.
“We have testimonials from surviving parents about the differences they see in these children” after attending Circle Camps for Grieving Children in other cities. Instead of feeling alone in their experience, “they’re self-confident and they see themselves as not unusual.”
Watch a Circle Camps video here.