Grief Camp helps children heal through nature
Eleven-year-old Noah has been coming to Children’s Grief Camp with his brother, Landon, for five years.
His favorite thing to do when he spends the week at Hillside Farms in Shavertown is listen to the other campers and everything they have been through.
“It’s been really hard for other people to do this,” he said. “So that’s why I help them.”
Noah is training to be a counselor at the annual camp. He and Landon spent a week with a group of other campers, all at the Shavertown farm for help processing grief or trauma that has touched their lives.
Suzanne Kapral, Director of Development and Marketing for The Lands at Hillside Farms, says that’s exactly what she wanted to create 10 years ago when she helped start the first Children’s Grief Camp.
“We wanted to put together a program that was different than what was out there currently, more of a green therapy type of program,” she said. “The children who come to the farm are immersed in agriculture…they are responsible for animal care.”
Every day at camp starts off with farm chores. The children meet at Hillside Cottage and climb onto a white bus - another one of Noah’s favorite things - then travel down the hill and across the street to the farm, where cows, sheep, chickens, goats, donkeys and horses are waiting in their pens or already outside, grazing.
On a morning during the last week of camp, the children sprang into action as soon as the bus reached the barns. They grabbed shovels and rakes to start mucking out stalls, filled up a container of feed to lead the goats outside to their enclosure, and debated the best way to pick up a chicken wandering around the outskirts of the barn.
“The beautiful part of this whole thing of getting the kids immersed in the agriculture and in the nature is that they start to slowly relax and remove some of their boundaries,” Kapral said.
When those boundaries start to come down, mental health professionals who come to the camp every day are on hand to lead group or individual therapy sessions for campers who choose to participate.
The camp is open to children ages 6-14 who have experienced trauma, such as the loss of a family member through illness, accident, homicide or suicide. Children in foster care are also welcome, and can be referred to the camp.
Each week of the camp is limited to 20 children, but Kapral says applications have increased in recent years, especially from children who have lost family to drug overdose.
“It's just incredibly crushing to see the number of kids here this year who have lost someone in their life due to drug overdose,” she said.
Because of that increasing demand, Kapral said the farm will likely host an extra, fourth week of Children’s Grief Camp next year. They’re also planning a modified version of the program for adults this October.
Kapral grew up about a mile away from Hillside Farms, in what she called a house of addiction. She says the farm became her “escape” as a child.
“When you’re growing up in the 60s and 70s, you really did not talk a lot about what was going on at home,” she said. “When I was here in the pastures, hanging out with the sheep and the goats, I just felt a connection.”
Decades later, in 2009, she had the opportunity to work at the farm.
“I wanted to show that this farm could be a safe place for other children who were hurting,” she said.
Noah says he and Landon are looking forward to when they can help with the program that has helped them - and they hope more people will come to camp.
“If they come to camp they are going to have an amazing time,” he said. “Because you get to see the cows…we get to go on an amazing bus… that’s why I want more people to come to camp.”