Losing a loved one can be a startling and difficult journey for many. Helping to meet the need for assistance is Camp Healing Hearts, a free day grief camp for all ages and families, coping with the loss of a loved one. 

 

The camp began in May of 2007 at Camp Ferncliff with 15 families in attendance, becoming the first grief camp in the state. Since then, the program has moved to Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock, where they can accommodate 124 people for lodging and 150 for meals. Annually, about 20-25 families come to attend Camp Healing Hearts. During 2020-2021, the camp took a hiatus due to the pandemic, but organizers are hoping to move to an overnight camp again soon, so that people further from Central Arkansas can easily access their resources.

 

The camp is coordinated by the Kaleidoscope Grief Center, a free program for children, teens and their families who are grieving that meets twice a month. Both Camp Healing Hearts and the Kaleidoscope Grief Center are programs through Methodist Family Health, a continuum of care for Arkansan children and their families that offers a vast array of services, both in-patient and out-patient, for various therapy and treatment needs.

 

Kelli Reep

Kelli Reep, director of Communications at Methodist Family Health and a member of the organization since 2017, is proud of the work that they do to help the state and its citizens.

 

“We work to feature people and organizations who make a joyful difference in the communities we share in Arkansas,” Reep says, “These are people and organizations you may not recognize or know about, but they are doing what they can to make our communities better – more accessible, safer, innovative.”

 

Janet Breen

Janet Breen, an outpatient therapist with the Methodist Counseling Clinic and Program Coordinator of Kaleidoscope Grief Center for over 12 years, was formerly employed in Hospice Home Care, where the grief center was once a program. When the program could not financially support itself as a nonprofit organization, Methodist Family Health took on the program. Grieving children and families may need specialized help and services, and the partnership with Methodist Family Health has proven to be a success for the continuation of the program.

 

“Due to their belief, as mine, that grieving children and families need a voice,” Breen adds.

 

While the large outdoors space offers an oasis in and of itself, there is also a critical element to the activities offered within that space. Since 2009, Camp Aldersgate has provided an aspect of cheer for Camp Healing Hearts, offering over 100 acres of natural landscape, a 6-acre private lake, 7 air-conditioned and handicap-accessible cabins, an open-air pavilion where campers can gather, a playground and carousel for children and trained staff who can help campers with activities.

 

As Breen says, “We need an environment such as this to do good grief work. We come to camp broken, battered and worn, and this ‘home away from home’ is an outdoor oasis and ideal setting for grief work to leave renewed and refreshed to continue on our grief journey.” 

 

To put it shortly, “It is a great fit.”

 

Through bereavement groups with their peers, campers have opportunities to participate in a candlelight memorial service, quiet periods, family activities and play. 

 

The idea of play as a form of therapy, Reep finds, is what makes the camp so unique in the form of grief counseling. While campers can do all the things you would expect at a normal summer camp, such as swimming, hiking and arts and crafts, there is also a space in the evening to hold a candlelight service where individuals can share about loved ones that they have lost.

 

As Reep says, “It’s a beautiful way to center yourself and feel like your loved one is with you.”

 

The camp is set up to provide a space for campers and families to “Reflect, Reconnect, and Rediscover” themselves, with each space integral to the camp and its view of grieving, and doing it communally.

 

Reflection is seen in the sharing of each individual’s personal stories, and a comforting, safe physical place to be able to reflect on the memories of their loved ones. Reconnection is the goal of helping families to experience nature in an independent way that sparks adventure, generating reconnection within themselves, as well as group discussions and art activities to help campers express themselves and their experiences.

 

Breen remarks, “Families have the opportunity to meet new people who are grieving, share their stories and challenge themselves by trying new things.”

 

The Rediscovery aspect of the camp is to provide ways to cope with grief and to provide hope for the families, who learn how to play and work together in reflecting and reconnecting. While they gain new coping skills at the camp that they can use after the program, they also leave with new friends and a new grief community. This strengthening of individuals and family units is the ultimate goal of the program, which hopes to provide tools for ongoing periods of grief and the future without that loved one.

 

The backbone to reaching these goals for campers are the staff, who come from an array of backgrounds and specializations, all with the goal to better Arkansan families that are grieving. 

 

And the best part? It is volunteer run.

 

The staff vary in professions, ranging from teachers to therapists, social workers to chaplains and healthcare workers, such as nurses. They come from Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Little Rock School District, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the nonprofit Delta Society. The primary source of support for the camp is Methodist Family Health.

 

Reep is just one example of many of the staff and outside support that make Camp Healing Hearts happen, and who may have experienced the same feelings that families and children in attendance are having. Around 50 trained volunteers participate in Camp Healing Hearts annually, an impressive feat of various medical and educational fields coming together from all backgrounds and experiences that may help them relate to others.

 

As Reep says, “I understand some of what the kids in our program are experiencing, and I want to tell their stories in a way others can understand and, hopefully, see themselves.”

 

The aspect of coming together to support and be with other grieving individuals is critical to the camp itself. Being family-oriented, caregivers are mandated to attend the camp with their grieving child. Individuals over 18 are not required to attend with their caregiver, but no camper attends alone. The camp activities, ranging from the candlelight ceremony to meals, boating, fishing, outdoor games like archery, and any other aspect of participation, are all done together as a family. 

 

While the goal of the camp is indeed to help others, the individuals who come to volunteer their time may do so because of their own personal grief, or a deep understanding of the families and individuals who need help.

 

“I am convinced that doing our own grief work is probably the most important work we will ever do in our lives,” Breen says, “Many bereaved children and families often need our support in this capacity when they don’t know how to help themselves or their children.”

 

After Camp Healing Hearts, there can continue to be support for grieving families. People can be referred to work with the Kaleidoscope Grief Group to carry on with their grief work, or also have assistance in finding resources local to them if they are not in the Central Little Rock area. 

 

Both Breen and Reep have experienced loss in their time working with and beside Camp Healing Hearts, and have been able to experience first-hand the way that grieving in a community offers a wonderful form of support. The ability to grieve with others was a life-altering period for both, and their continued support of the program speaks volumes about how that experience has made them want to continue to help others. Camp Healing Hearts may be a day where families and children can play together, but it is also a day where strangers can learn how to take the tentative next steps of life without a loved one.

 

“It takes special people to step up and work with people in their grief,” Reep concludes. “It’s a heartbreaking but profoundly beautiful thing to witness.”