The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s (NFFF) Family Programs work can be challenging even on a good day. As a team whose primary mission is to provide resources to families of fallen fire heroes, they work tirelessly to ensure that each and every family’s journey after tragic loss is made a little easier. But there’s no question that the work of bereavement support is best done in person.
Then came spring 2020, when along with the rest of the world, NFFF team members found themselves in the unenviable position of having to cancel all in-person retreats and workshops for the year—including the popular Kids Camps. But rather than simply put these cherished camps on hold for the summer, Family Programs was determined to create a new way to bring campers together even though they were apart.
And while uncertain of whether this new model would actually work, they knew they had to try.
Hal Bruno Kids Camp
Designed for youth ages 7 through high school
Now in its ninth year, this remarkable annual weekend event takes place in partnership with Comfort Zone Camp*. While the 2020 camp was originally scheduled to take place in the mountains of Colorado, the event was rejigged to bring campers together over the air waves instead of up in the Rockies.
Campers received special boxes in advance that included swag like tie-dyed T-shirts, water bottles, and more. Each camper was matched with a volunteer mentor “camp buddy,” many of whom are active firefighters. On Camp Day, events included icebreakers, healing circles, group shares, and the traditional closing bonfire (“virtual,” of course!) to cap off the event.
At Kids Camp, kids feel safe and supported—knowing that they can share memories and feelings about their loved one while staying “in the camp bubble.” As long-time volunteer buddy and Fire Chief Chad Hoefle of Stillman, Illinois explains, “The kids learn that it’s okay to talk about a lost loved one and let others hear your story.”
The relationships from camp are lasting, too—in fact, it’s common for youth campers and big/little buddy matches to leave camp with new friends and mentors that will last a lifetime. Above all, the entire program was designed to facilitate trust, expression, and interaction. And while this year kids were chatting and offering encouragement to each other in the “chat” versus in person, the effect was the same. While no child wants to be in the honored fire hero family, once there they find others who are just like them—and are there to listen no matter what.
Camp HAL (Healing After Loss)
Welcomes younger campers from ages 4 – 6
Originally planned as a parent-child overnight trip, this program—led by a licensed play-therapist who specializes in working with children who are grieving—included the debut of Camp HAL-in-a-Box: a fun-packed bunch of goodies designed to experience camp—virtually! Each little camper received the special delivery in advance of the event, and a pre-camp online “unboxing” session with parents/guardians introduced the kid-centric items and shared tips for using them before, during, and after the online camp event. From animal masks to sidewalk chalk to stickers, the delightful assortment set the stage for FUN.
“Camp HAL 2020 truly exceeded my wildest dreams! The kids were so respectful in listening to each other, and they gently made connections about their daddies. Even though hundreds of miles apart, the children had the opportunity to realize they were not alone in their grief.” – Counselor Stephanie Heitkemper, MA
Designed especially for children’s energy levels and attention spans, activities on camp day took place in 9-minute intervals. Previous young campers served as “volunteers” to lead the way for the littler kids. Stories like Grumpy Monkey and items like bubble wands that serve as a springboard for the sharing of grief were carefully chosen to enhance the experience. Interspersed throughout the session were stories and connections as children talked about their lost family member. In fact, without the travel aspect, this year’s Camp HAL welcomed more campers than ever before!
As 2021 approaches, there is no doubt that NFFF Family Programs Kids Camps are here to stay. But will they be in person—or online? Hopefully, campers will convene over a real bonfire or enjoy an in-person read-aloud activity. But as the Family Programs team learned in 2020, both kids and adults can be flexible. The goal of the camps has always been to serve as a catalyst, bringing children/youth together with others who understand where they are and provide strategies to help them grow, learn, and navigate their grief. And that is exactly what happened this summer.
* Comfort Zone Camp (CZC) is a nonprofit 501(c)3 bereavement organization that transforms the lives of children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver.
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