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A Place to Remember

by Michelle Spevak

For young children who have lost a loved one, Camp Firefly offers a place for grief and healing.

On a single weekend each August, the YMCA’s Camp Matollionequay in Medford becomes a surprisingly reflective place. There’s canoeing, archery and swimming, sure, but there are also deeply somber moments, like at the lakeside at dusk, when campers take milk carton boats, decorated with photos and words about lost loved ones, and sail them out onto the lake as darkness falls.

This is Camp Firefly, an annual retreat for children ages 7 to14 who have lost a parent, friend, relative or other loved one. Run by the nonprofit Moorestown Visiting Nurse Association (VNA), the three-day, two-night camp brings laughter, fun and tears—and, most importantly, a lasting message of healing and remembrance.

The camp, says 12-year-old Taylor Kane of Mount Laurel, “shows all of the kids, and me, that, even though it’s sad to think about it and to think about the person who died, you always have to keep them in your memory.”

This therapeutic getaway began six years ago, spearheaded by VNA employees who saw children experiencing loss as “forgotten mourners,” expected to continue to play, unaffected, while adults mourned around them. After a similar local camp for grieving kids shut down, the nurses rallied to fill the void. “There was a need for children who are grieving in South Jersey that wasn’t being met by anyone else,” says Patricia Bevlock, a registered nurse and vice president of hospice and palliative care at the VNA.

Now, Camp Firefly hosts approximately 40 to 50 campers each summer, for both traditional camp activities and bereavement programs, including a nondenominational memorial service where campers and counselors read poems and sing songs. Campers also participate in making a quilt, each adding their own square, and create “inside-outside boxes,” decorating the outside of the box as others see them and the interior with words and feelings they keep to themselves.

Kane, a student at Harrington Middle School in Mount Laurel, lost her father when she was 5 years old, but attended Camp Firefly for the first time last summer. She enrolled in the camp not only to grieve, but also to act as a comfort for other campers who had experienced more recent losses.

The camp offers free admission to children who live in Burlington, Camden or Gloucester counties. With 24 senior counselor volunteers, (ages 21 and older), who stay over with the children, and 24 junior counselors, (ages 16 to 20), who help out during the day, each camper receives plenty of individual attention. Counselors go through an interview process and training program, and junior counselors attend children’s grief groups before camp. The Moorestown VNA staff and a volunteer nurse are also on the premises all weekend.

The camp is also extremely emotional for the volunteers who participate. “I have learned so much by being involved with Camp Firefly, and truly admire the children I have met over the years,” says Dana Mondi, the Moorestown VNA’s volunteer manager. “Camp Firefly has truly enriched my life.”

The only weekend-long camp of its kind in our region, Camp Firefly is also self sustaining, raising funds without any corporate backing. And campers leave with a list of programs and support groups that are at their disposal after camp ends.

The take home message from it all? “I learned that sometimes it’s better to share with other people,” Kane says. Camp turned out to be the ideal place to start that process of opening up. “It’s easier to do it there, because everyone feels the same way,” she adds.

“Sometimes it’s hard in front of your friends because they don’t know what you really went through, and they don’t know what to say.”

Kane’s journey with Camp Firefly did not end last summer. Now, she makes and sells bracelets made from recycled soda can tabs to support the camp. And this August she hopes to return, to help with and participate in the memorial service, sharing her story and comforting other children who have experienced the same type of loss as she has.

To volunteer, contribute or register a child for Camp Firefly, call (856) 552-1300 or visit MoorestownVNA.org.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4 (July, 2011).
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