Jim Davis – Florida Catholic
Archdiocesan camp serves children who are grieving for lost loved ones
MIAMI | Kimberly Eisenmann-Byerly tensed up when she heard her daughter was calling from camp. After the consecutive deaths of two husbands and a father-in-law — all within six years — the family didn’t need another tragedy.
But Daley’s message was a totally different shock, in a good way: “Mommy! There are kids here just like me!”
There certainly were: dozens of them, all grieving for lost loved ones. At Camp Erin, they shared their grief and learned tools to cope with their feelings.
Twice a year, Camp Erin brings together such children with counselors and therapists of Catholic Hospice, a ministry of the Archdiocese of Miami. They do the usual campy things like football and fireside singalongs. They also do less-common things like lighting memorial candles and painting their feelings onto masks.
That makes a huge difference to the kids, according to Eisenmann-Byerly and other parents.
“Children get forgotten when there’s a death in the family,” the Plantation resident confessed. “We adults are trying just to function and work and pay bills. We sometimes forget that the children are trying to cope, too. Just like us, they need an outlet to express their feelings.”
About 50 such camps serve bereaved children around the nation, supported partly by the Philadelphia-based Moyer Foundation. In South Florida, Camp Erin benefits also from local fundraisers by the nonprofit organization LIVE (Lead, Innovate, Volunteer, Empower).
In April, LIVE partnered with the archdiocese to organize a golf tournament that raised $60,000. They’re also planning a game and cocktail night called Bet on the Future, scheduled for Nov. 19 at a private home on Miami Beach.
Held at various sites around South Florida, Camp Erin hosts 45 to 65 children at a time. Not all of them are Catholic: Baptist, Lutheran, Jewish, Methodist and other children have been among the 500 who have attended in its four years. (From 1995 until its partnership with the Moyer Foundation in 2012, Catholic Hospice hosted a similar weekend, called Camp Hope, twice a year.)
The camp draws on multiple talents of Catholic Hospice workers, including mental health counselors, social workers and bereavement coordinators. They use a variety of methods — art therapy, music therapy, pet therapy — to draw out the children.
For some kids, it helps to write their angry feelings on a plate, then smash it. Some feel better singing or drumming together, creating a shared experience. There’s also a “luminary” ceremony, in which the campers decorate jars holding candles; then, one by one, they tell about their loved ones. The jars are then placed on a raft and floated onto a nearby lake.
“We felt that having a camp — where kids get therapy and coping skills, and meet other kids who are having the same experience — gives them a sense that they’re not alone,” said Rochelle S. Clarke, bereavement supervisor at Catholic Hospice.
Jahleel Reynolds was only 2 when the family house caught fire in 2008. So his mother, Sasheena, didn’t think he would remember much about the tragedy that took his baby sister, Jada.
“But when he turned 5 or 6, the memories came flooding back,” the Coral Springs resident said. He sometimes cried at school, and he once had a panic attack after hearing a siren — his breath became so short, he was rushed to a hospital. He often just stayed in his room.
“I was angry,” Jahleel, now 10, confesses. “I thought it was unfair.”
His mother, who runs her own grief support group called Gifts from Jada, encouraged him to talk about it. “Sometimes he would just cry and squeeze me,” she said.
But when she heard of Camp Erin, “I was like, Wow! Why haven’t I heard of this before?” Reynolds said. She got Jahleel into the camp last year.
He enjoyed the sports, but he loved the therapies. Like when he wrote his feelings on a balloon, then released it into the sky. And the luminary observance, when he included a message with the jar: “I miss you, and I know you’re in a better place.”
Jahleel could even sympathize with a girl who had lost both parents and an uncle in a shooting. “I was crying for Jada and for her. I only lost one relative, but she lost three.”
He used a grown-up expression for his return from camp: “I was restored.”
Angel on his shoulder
Cathy and Sean Kerr did their best for their son after his infant brother died in a tragic home accident in 2010. But even with counseling, Jackson cried often and talked out of turn in school.
“He didn’t know how to talk out the loss,” said Cathy, of Cooper City.
A psychologist told them about Camp Erin, and Jackson went in March. “He did amazing,” the mother said of the 7-year-old. “It helped to be around others who experienced loss.”
One of his favorite activities was a show-and-tell with a Christmas picture of Kyle he’d brought to camp. “I liked where you stand up and speak into a mike,” Jackson said. “And you can show what your loved ones are like.”
After he returned home, his crying declined, and he spoke more peacefully about his brother, sometimes even calling him an “angel on my shoulder.” And on his birthday, he said, “Let’s get a balloon and send it up to Kyle.”
Now and then, Jackson sings a song he learned at camp: “Up, Up, Up.”
“It’s about how feelings go down, but then you think of (loved ones), and your feelings go up,” Cathy Kerr said. “It’s taken a little time to see the effects. (But) I believe the progress came from Camp Erin.”
One day, no more tears
Until her daughters returned from Camp Erin, Kimberly Eisenmann-Byerly didn’t even realize how deeply the family deaths had affected them.
Kailey, now 7, came back with a “spring in her step and a smile,” the physical therapist said. Daley, now 13, began asking about each of the deceased husbands.
In retrospect, it was evident that the girls were troubled by the death of her first husband in 2010 to a brain tumor, then her second husband in 2012 from cardiac complications. Earlier this year, one of their grandfathers died of colon cancer.
Both girls became withdrawn, unwilling to talk out their feelings. Daley was afraid to sleep alone and often burst into tears at small frustrations. A counselor at Daley’s public school recommended Camp Erin.
Both girls have attended several times. Like Jackson Kerr, they loved the show-and-tell. They also liked adding photos to a collage with other campers.
Daley especially enjoyed the masks, which she painted inside and out, showing how she really felt and what she showed the world. During a visit to their home in Plantation, she explained the color schemes she used — like red for anger, blue for sadness, green for bravery.
Then she pointed out how her newest mask, from this past April, showed yellow for brightness inside and out. She now uses red not for anger, but for love.
“I’m grateful for where I am now,” Daley explained. “I have my family and good friends. And now I know how to talk about it.”
So compelling are the lessons of Camp Erin that even the parents benefit, just from seeing the results in their children.
“Sometimes you want to close the book, because it hurts so much to remember,” Eisenmann-Byerly said. “But at the camp, they teach you that it’s OK to remember, to hurt, to cry. And to enjoy the happy memories.
“One day, you’re going to look at the pictures and not cry.”