By Amanda Dyslin
---- — They are kids who have lost parents. Some have lost friends, children their own age. For many, they've lost grandparents.
The loss is what unfortunately connects them. And the camp they all attend, Camp Oz, is part of what helps them deal with that loss together.
“I think kids who lose somebody, they think that they're alone and nobody really understands … but at this camp, they can meet other kids that have suffered a loss,” said Jeanne Atkinson, hospice bereavement coordinator at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. “They can connect with other kids and know they're not alone.”
For the past eight years, the one-day Camp Oz event has offered children and families a combination of grief support and fun activities. Held at Bass Lake Camp in Winnebago, children are given opportunities to open up about their lost loved ones, to share in a group setting, to create memory art projects, and to engage in outdoor activities, such as rock-wall climbing and, this year, relay races.
Kellie Jansen, 22, attended camp the first year it opened when she was in ninth grade. When she was 5 months old, her 2-year-old brother drowned in the river in their backyard in rural Good Thunder.
“I guess I didn't really struggle with it too much as a child, but after eighth grade, I really started wondering what happened, why it happened and just not being able to remember him,” Jansen said.
Jansen's experience at Camp Oz did a lot for her, she said. She learned in that one day that she wasn't alone and that it was OK to be feeling what she was feeling. So for the past five years or so, she's gone back to the camp as a volunteer.
“It was definitely my experience (that made me volunteer). I just wanted to give back,” she said.
Atkinson said during the group sessions, the children ages 6 to 18 are separated by age and share their stories with peers. They bring pictures of their loved ones, and volunteer mental health professionals facilitate the discussions.
“That can be an emotional time for the kids,” Atkinson said.
Families are now being offered similar support as part of the camp. When they drop their kids off in Mankato to be transported, there is a two-hour parent session offered with a psychologist to talk about their children's grief and how to help them deal with it.
There is also a family component at the end of the day to have a meal with the kids and take in the closing ceremony.
In between times, the kids have a blast. This year they'll be creating a collective work of art where each child adds a loved one to the piece. About 20 members of the Minnesota State University women's track and cross-country team will be playing with the kids and setting up some relays.
“We have kids that come back again and again,” Atkinson said. “And that's OK because as they continue to develop and grow, that grief comes up again, and we continue to work through it at every developmental stage.”
Carolyn Nafstad is a licensed counselor who was on the original planning committee for the camp. She has also volunteered to work with kids at the camp almost every year. Nafstad said she's seen the difference the camp can make in helping children deal with their feelings.
“It's to bring together kids to help them normalize their experience,” she said. “The stories are really sad, but it's also about saying, 'Hey, this is a way to get you back into more of a life without these people.'”
Nafstad also will be facilitating a six-week support group following the camp in October for kids who have lost a loved one.
At a glance Camp Oz will be held 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Bass Lake Camp in Winnebago. The camp is free, but registration is required. Call 385-2618 ASAP for more information.