Camp Erin: Helping Kids Heal

Camp Erin: Helping Kids Heal 

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In 2008, Elise Kinnamon, an amazing young lady and a member of Pagliacci’s management team, lost her fight with an inoperable brain tumor, leaving behind a young son. We were heartbroken. In addition to supporting her husband and son directly, we wanted to do something meaningful to help keep her memory alive. We had been donating to Safe Crossings for some time and when their employees connected us with Camp Erin, a bereavement camp for children, we were excited to have found a perfect place to honor Elise.

Children that lose a parent or sibling often suffer from feelings of profound sadness, isolation, confusion, and anger. The grief can be devastating. Most have no experience dealing with the magnitude of such a loss, and their support system may also be reeling from the same loss they’ve suffered. 

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One such camper we got to know is Taylor. After her father died, she attended Camp Erin. She found unexpected comfort in the support of her Big Buddies, the camp’s volunteer cabin counselors. They cheered her on as she navigated high zip lines. They sat beside her as she cried watching the luminary she’d decorated for her father float away on the lake. Taylor returned to Camp Erin the next summer. And the next one. And yet one more. Healing from such a loss can take a lifetime, if ever.

Knowing the healing power that Camp Erin provides, Taylor will return this summer to Camp Erin to volunteer as a Big Buddy. She hopes to help other children, much as her Big Buddies helped her. “Camp Erin provides an empathetic community presence that stays with you as you grow,” says Taylor.

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In the past, there haven’t been many resources available to help children cope with their grief. This need gave birth to Camp Erin in 2002, named in memory of Erin Metcalf. Erin was a remarkable young woman who developed liver cancer when she was 15 years old. Erin had a compassionate heart, and when she was hospitalized, she often expressed concern for the other children in the hospital as well as their siblings. She recognized the impact the illness of a family member had on the siblings and their need for support and attention.

The first Camp Erin was established in Everett, Washington in 2002, honoring Erin’s passion for life and desire to help other kids and teens. There are now over 48 locations across the country and in Canada, and nearly 22,000 campers have attended Camp Erin, making it the largest network of free bereavement camps in the country for children and teens.

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Camp Erin provides children a safe space to discuss death and their grief with other kids their age. Since all the kids at Camp Erin have suffered a deep personal loss, campers are free from the fear that they’re bringing everyone else down or feel self-conscious in the isolating way they might feel at school or amongst friends at home.

A bereavement camp may sound harrowing, but for those in need it can make a profound difference in their lives. At camp, counselors encourage the children to open up, to share their grief and special memories with other campers their age, and to listen to the experiences of others. It helps the children to feel they aren’t alone or the odd one out. Campers mourn and process their grief under guidance from counselors and in conversations with other campers. Activities are designed to help them build coping skills. They make luminaries, often listing memories of the departed and writing messages to them. It is a way to say goodbye. And through it all, they find plenty of time for fun in traditional camp activities like evening campfires, nature walks, arts and crafts, rope courses and games. 

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In the Seattle area, Camp Erin is held at Camp Korey, which has recently moved from its location in Carnation, WA, to a new, larger location in Mt. Vernon, WA. Children aged 7 to 18 stay overnight for the high-energy weekend camp. Camp Erin is free for all participants, which is made possible by an endowment from The Moyer Foundation, grants, and community donations. Professional staff affiliated with Providence Hospice of Seattle’s Safe Crossings program and trained volunteers facilitate activities.

Pagliacci Pizza has supported the Seattle location of Camp Erin for nine years now, providing pizza to feed the kids and staff at the camp. The first year we delivered pizzas to the camp, our driver was nervous about delivering pizza to the kickoff of a bereavement camp. But as the campers came to grab their slices, they came out of their shells. Food, especially pizza, can be such a unifying ice breaker. By the time the driver left, the kids were smiling (the driver, too) and enjoying each other’s company.

Sam Eisenhood, Pagliacci’s catering manager, oversees the donations. “The kids there are really the best. So is the staff. I’ve worked with several people over the years, and they are some of the nicest people that I have ever had the pleasure to work with. They are all so thankful and appreciative of our donations. Every year I hear how much the kids love Pagliacci and it’s one of the highlights of the program for them.”

Some Pagliacci employees have been so moved by Camp Erin, they have volunteered to deliver the pizzas on their own time. One employee even became a Camp Erin counselor.

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Taylor, now in college, shares her camp pictures with her friends and talks freely with them about the loss she suffered and how she found solace and support at Camp Erin. As she prepares for her first time returning as a Big Buddy she says, “I hold much excitement to walk beside these youth as they are enveloped in this empathy, tell stories of their loved ones by candlelight, reach new heights on zip lines, and find comfort and hope.”

It is very fulfilling that something as simple as a pizza donation can play a role in the healing process. Being involved in supporting Camp Erin has been a very rewarding experience and it’s one of our small ways of remembering and honoring Elise.

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More can be learned about King County Camp Erin here. (In Western Washington, Camp Erin is also held in Everett and Tacoma.)

This year’s King County camps are:

  • Teen Camp Erin (7th-12th grade) will be held July 14-16, 2017. 
  • Kids Camp Erin (1st-6th grade) will be held August 4-6, 2017.

For those interested in learning more about the power of healing at The Moyer Foundation’s Camp Erin, there is an award-winning documentary One Last Hug, produced by HBO and directed by Oscar-nominated director Irene Taylor Brodsky. The short film follows three heartbreaking but ultimately empowering days at Camp Erin in Los Angeles. 

For those outside of the Seattle area, Camp Erin locations nationwide click here.