Laughter through tears

In the circle: “Everybody is in a similar situation,” says a Washington-area camper. “They know how it feels.”
In the circle: “Everybody is in a similar situation,” says a Washington-area camper. “They know how it feels.”

There are all kinds of specialty camps for girls out there: riding camps, volleyball camps, rock ‘n’ roll camps, modeling camps.

What about a camp for girls who are grieving the death of a parent?

For the second summer, the Circle Camps for Grieving Children will hold a week-long session on the grounds of Emma Kaufmann Camp of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Morgantown, W.Va.

The non-denominational camp accepts girls ages 9-14 as campers. Counselors-in-training are ages 15-16. Girls ages 17 and 18 qualify for leadership training, after which they are eligible to become counselors, says Sandi Lando Welch, who founded Circle Camps in 2002.
The one-week session is free of charge. “All the girls have to do is get to the bus stop,” she says.
Next summer’s session in Morgantown will be Aug. 17-22.

Camp activities include waterfront activities, arts and crafts, and land sports. “The high ropes course at the JCC will be an integral part of our programming,” she says. Some activities will depend on the skills brought by the counselors, ages 19-mid-70s, who volunteer their time to the camp.

Where does the grief come in?

Welch says there are no counseling sessions. What the girls do get is the
comfort of being part of a community where everyone has lost a loved one.

“They know they are not alone,” Welch says. “They know they’re not the only girl without a mother at the parent-teacher conference.”

The camp is the only place where people will understand why a girl is joking even after the death of a parent. “They know it’s OK to have laughter even when you cry,” she says. “And that you can have fun even though your father has died.

Welch, a Pittsburgh native, is a longtime camp person. She spent her childhood, until she was 21, at Camp Tapawingo in Sweden, Maine — first as a camper, then as a counselor.

“I was 5 feet 8 in 3rd grade and it was not fun,” she says. “Summer camp was my haven. It allowed me to be a different person than I was at home.”

She kept an interest in doing something camp related. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she happened to speak to the owner of her old camp who told her that two campers had lost their mothers in the attack.

“It just all came together,” she says. “I grew up in a Jewish home where I was taught that although my plate was always full, there were so many others who didn’t even have a plate. As young as I can remember, in order to receive a Chanukah present, I had to buy and give a gift to someone else. So I baked cookies and did yard work to raise money.”

She decided to establish a free camp for grieving girls and by summer 2002 she had secured funding and permission to hold its first session at Camp Tapawingo. Last summer, 230 campers attended at sites in Malibu, Calif., and Fitzwilliam, N.H., as well as at Tapawingo and the JCC camp at Morgantown.

Circle camps 2013 Love, Loss, LiveLast summer, Christian McManus was one of four girls from the Washington area to attend Circle Camps in Morgantown.

The 13-year-old Landover resident lost her mother when she was 9.

“Everybody is in a similar situation,” she says. “They know how it feels.”

Before the session, Christian wasn’t sure she could handle the environment, says her father, Fowler McManus. But Christian enjoyed the experience, and McManus hopes she can attend again this summer.

“This gives her a chance to deal with some women and girls about any anger and grief she’s got,” he says.

Welch says whenever Circle Camps enters a new market, as it is doing with the Washington, D.C., area, prospective parents ask how it vets its counselors. “We do everything according to [American Camp Association] rules.”

The camp allows no contact with home during the weeklong session. The separation allows Circle Camps “to create a summer community,” she says. “In 14 years, we have never lost a camper to homesickness.”

For information about Circle Camps, email [email protected]

[email protected]

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