‘I Have Built A Family Here:’ Summer Camp For Kids Facing Loss

Summer loss 1
Aislynn Johnson in July 2019 performs a scene from "Harry Potter" at the Hearts to Arts summer camp for children who have lost a parent. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
Summer loss 1
Aislynn Johnson in July 2019 performs a scene from "Harry Potter" at the Hearts to Arts summer camp for children who have lost a parent. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

‘I Have Built A Family Here:’ Summer Camp For Kids Facing Loss

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

It was early afternoon on a recent Friday at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, and a group of about 30 campers were rehearsing their parts for an upcoming performance for their family members.

Some were dancing, others were lip-syncing to their favorite bands, including Kiss and Andra Day.

These campers are learning about acting, singing and dancing as part of the Hearts to Art summer camp in the Loop.

But this isn’t just theater camp — for two weeks, these 7- to 10-year-olds also work through the pain and frustration of having lost their mom or dad.

“I feel like I have built a family here,” said Journei Barlow-Howard, a junior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago who has been a camper for about eight years. She now works as a junior counselor and plans to stay involved even beyond college. She said helping children who are learning how to cope with the loss of a parent is her calling.

Journei’s dad died of a heart attack when she was just 7, in the winter of 2010. That summer, she joined the camp.

“It just helped me through my grieving process and my loss,” she said. “I love what the camp does for kids who have experienced this loss. It’s also important to teach kids the arts because in some schools they might not be getting that.”

Support and plenty of fun

The Hearts to Art theater camp has been around for 15 years, bringing together a diverse group of kids from all parts of the city and nearby suburbs. While the camp is just $50 for the two-week session, some campers pay nothing at all.

Each camper comes with a unique story.

“You know, we are in Chicago, there are certainly some deaths that have been violent,” said Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman, director of Hearts to Art. “People have lost parents to cancer and other illnesses [or] car accidents.”

Some campers have witnessed the death of a parent or tried to resuscitate them. Others never knew their parents, Illiatovitch-Goldman said.

Each summer, a team of professional artists and teachers help the kids prepare for their culminating experience — a talent show and final play. The first two weeks is for younger children, followed by a second two-week session for 11- to 14-year-olds.

Summer 2
An art instructor at the Hearts to Arts camp for kids who have lost a parent helps a boy get ready for his impersonation of a member of the band Kiss. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
Participants meet with clinical staff in small group sessions three times a week. The camp also offers family support groups.

“It’s fun, it’s not really talking about your feelings. It’s you expressing over dance, music or art,” said Christian James, a chatty 11-year-old from Humboldt Park. He lost his dad when he was 9.

Christian said he’s learned breathing techniques that help him when he is anxious or upset.

And he’s also doing a lot of regular kid stuff, like the Chubby Bunny challenge for the talent show. Christian and his friends will stuff as many marshmallows in their mouths as they can, all while trying to say “chubby bunny” loud and clear.

Other campers like Aislynn Johnson and her friend are hard at work practicing a short play. They are impersonating Harry Potter’s Ginny Weasley from Gryffindor and Luna Lovegood from Ravenclaw.

Aislynn is a seventh grader who lost both her parents when she was 9 years old. She lives in western New York state but has family in Chicago. This is her second year coming to camp.

Aislynn has a bubbly personality — one of her uncles taught her how to speak with an English accent. She is happy to be showing off her new talent.

She said she looks forward to camp each summer because she identifies with other kids, especially when she gets upset or sad.

“I’ll be tired or I just won’t feel good and I would want to go home and not do an activity,” she said, “and then I’ll talk to some other people and I’ll hear … how they feel that way too — and so I will talk to them and then we’ll like help each other lift each other up.”

The camp has its heavy moments, of course. At the end, they write notes to their parents who died and release them with a balloon.

But mostly, the camp is about having fun, about learning to laugh again.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag