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Unusual Camp Brings Comfort and Fun to Grieving Children

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At first glance, Hands Together, Heart to Art, seems like your typical art camp. It’s a day camp held each summer at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University. But the kids who come are anything but typical. They’ve all lost at least one parent. And the regular camp stuff, the singing and dancing and putting on plays, is just part of a healing experience that camp organizers hope to see replicated in other cities

NOTE: See below for community resources for children who have lost a parent.

LOSURDO: Hey everybody, welcome to camp.

Camp Director Nicole Losurdo looks around at the children in front of her. They wear sparkly barrettes and Band-Aids. There are 46 in all, from age 6 to about 12, and every single one of them has lost one or both parents.

The welcome speeches last just 2 minutes and 6 seconds.

LOSURDO: I think we should get this party started. What do you think?

These kids’ parents died from cancer, car accidents, suicide and even murder. Some of them sit quietly with arms pulled in tight to their bodies, and they just look around. The camp counselors go to the kids who aren’t dancing and twirl them around. Soon, there’s only a handful still watching and waiting.

BATTERSON: It gives them an outlet. It gives them a way to express themselves, without necessarily having to stand up and shout, I lost my father or I lost my mother.

Brett Batterson runs the Auditorium Theatre. He started the camp because his father died when he was a kid. He says the arts saved him.

During camp, kids take dance, music and theater. They also attend small group sessions with therapists. Batterson believes it’s the only arts camp just for kids who’ve lost a parent.

BATTERSON: It all comes down to, we want the kids, no matter how sad they may be when they enter the camp, to leave the camp happier, to understand that the world is still a beautiful place for them to grow up.

It’s day two, and a circus group is here to boost the kids’ confidence and teamwork. CircEsteem shows them how to juggle.Within minutes, the children are the ones juggling, walking on balls and twirling plates on sticks. But the highlight is a giant wheel that spins them high in the air.

NAT: Oh my gosh, oh, oh....

Candice Suber and another girl giggle as they watch one of the boys. Candice is 10. Her mom died in a car crash when she was 3. Candice says she misses her mom.

SUBER: I talk to myself, and they ask me who you talking to, and I say, my Mom. Because I don’t have nobody else to talk to.
KALSNES: Does it make you feel better when you talk to your mom?
SUBER: Yeah, it makes me feel better, and it makes me feel like she’s there for real.

One of the things Candice likes about camp is sharing her memories.

SUBER: I cry sometimes because I really miss my mom and I wish she was there to take care of us more than my dad is doing. But my dad is trying to work hard just like she did before she died.

Another camper, Benton Belzer, says he used to be really mad. He’s 11, and his dad died of cancer when he was 6.

BELZER: He had this beard and mustache and stuff. And anytime he kissed me, it was like it tickled a little. And then I cried every time I think of that.

His mom, Donna McVey says before Benton and his sister attended camp for the first time, they were stuck on questions like, why us, and when’s dad coming back?

McVEY: They were just so angry at God, and they were angry at me, and they were angry at him. I really do feel like after that summer and after seeing that other kids felt the same way, and that it was OK to feel that way, they were able to ask other questions, like where do we go from here, and is it OK, do I not feel guilty because I’m having fun?

Benton says camp’s helped him find creative ways to get his mind off things. One of his creations is a comic strip with the superhero, Toast Boy.

BELZER: Toast Boy knows how to do anything a household object can do.
KALSNES: How does he do this if he’s toast?
BELZER: He’s usually protecting his own head. His weakness is burning up, like burned toast.

Ambi: “coming to you live from the Land of Toast and Butter…"

Now Benton, and his superhero, have a starring role. He and the other kids at camp created a play based on his comic strip with help from Child’s Play Touring Theatre. Toast Boy and Butter Kid stop the evil villains by throwing skim milk on them.

In the room next door, students from the Chicago College of Performing Arts teach songs for the big show.

Ambi: 1, 2, ready go…

Another day brings a more somber note to camp. The kids write messages to their dead parents, and send them up in balloons.

Ambi: All right. 3, 2, 1. Screams and claps.

The campers watch as the balloons rise toward the skyline. They express concern when a few white balloons seem to fall, then cheer as they go up again.

GIRL: Guys, look at how high they are now. They’re little dots.

As the balloons rise, Marian Williams asks her parents for a sign they’re still with her. Both died about four years ago.

WILLIAMS: I was mad, I didn’t want to talk to none of my family members. ‘Cuz they didn’t know what it was like to lose both of my parents.
Marian says she didn’t open up until a healing session her first year of camp. This is her third year now, and she’s a junior counselor.

Many of the kids return year after year.

The organizers acknowledge there’s only so much you can do in two weeks. In fact, a handful of kids drop out before it’s over. But the organizers point to the kids’ progress over the years as evidence the arts can help.

That’s why they hope to spread the camp to other cities, to help more of the nearly 2 million American children who have lost a parent.

Marian has a message for these kids.

WILLIAMS: If you lose a mom or dad or both, you are going to feel very mad, you are going to hate everybody, you’re going to hate the world, you’re probably not going to want to live. But just know that’s a phase, and you will be OK, and you will come out on top.

Just a few days later, it’s time for the final show. The audience fills up with surviving parents, and the aunts, uncles and grandparents that many of the children live with now.

Drama teacher Emma Caywood gives Samantha Flory a pep talk.

CAYWOOD: We’re gonna do it awesomely.
FLORY: Yeah, perfect, perfect, perfect.
CAYWOOD: We’re gonna do the best job that we can do. OK? It doesn’t have to be perfect, never has to be perfect, it just has to be awesome.

One of the boys, Tevonte Grangent, says he’s really nervous.

CAMP COUNSELOR: Sit down and relax (laughing.)
GRANGENT: I got to puke, man.
COUNSELOR: I don’t feel like seeing your pizza.
GRANTGENT: But it hurts, Argh.

Then it’s time to go on.

Ambi: dance number

The kids file onstage. Their faces light up as they spot their families. Their voices become louder, and their bows, more extravagant.

They finish up with a song they sang so tentatively, just a week ago.

Song: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough…..

Their families wipe away tears. Then they greet the children with big hugs

I’m Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.

Music continues, applause

CHILDREN’S BEREAVEMENT SUPPORT Barr Harris Children’s Grief Center
Chicago, IL
Barr- Harris provides individual and family therapy to children who have suffered a loss through death, divorce or abandonment. Services are available downtown, LaRabida’s Children’s Hospital, Little Company of Mary Hospital, Swedish Covenant Hospital, Riverdale Resource Center, and Highland Park Hospital.

Rolling Meadows, IL
Support for any child who has experienced a loss through death, divorce, separation or any other painful transition. Rainbows is offered in schools, churches, hospitals and agencies.

LOSS Program
Chicago, IL
Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide is a program specifically for individuals who have had a friend or family member die from suicide.

Victim Witness Assistance Program
Chicago, IL
This is an open support group for children and parents who are the survivors of homicide victims The parents group is also offered in Spanish. The family support group meets in Chicago. Adult groups are available in Des Plaines, Markham, Berwyn, Oak Park, and Chicago.


Gilda’s Club
Chicago, IL
Gilda’s Club Chicago offers support for men, women and children diagnosed with cancer, who have cancer in the family, or have experienced the death of a loved one from cancer.


Good Mourning Children’s Program
Park Ridge, IL
The Good Mourning program provides support for children ages 3-18 and families who have experienced a significant loss. The program offers support groups, monthly meetings, a holiday gathering, and a family camp.


The CompanionShip
University of Chicago Children’s Hospital
Chicago, IL
The CompanionShip is a grief support program for children and families who are mourning the death of a loved one.

Olympia Fields, IL
Braveheart, in affiliation with the Midwest Palliative and Hospice Care Center, offers support groups for families who are coping with the death of a loved one.

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