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.