CentralPA Newsstand Contact Central PA WITF.org CentralPA Advertising CentralPA Home CentralPA Home
deptmenu Central Stories Central Style Thinking Aloud Agenda Cameo Events Books Food The Phantom Diner President's Message Archives



By Stephanie Anderson
Photographs by Lori Stahl


Excerpted from Central PA magazine, May 2001

A simple child
That lightly draws its breath
And feels its life in every limb
What should it know of death?

At first glance, camp dragonfly looks and feels like a run-of-the-mill summer camp. A half-deflated tetherball hangs limply from its worn rope, and a pungent medley of forest, mothballs and bug spray lingers in the air. The campers are regular kids with sunburned noses, skinned knees and sneaker-clad feet. Camp Dragonfly seems so unremarkable, it’s easy to forget these children are here because someone they loved has died.

Each year since 1995, Camp Dragonfly has been held on the grounds of Camp Hebron, nestled in Peters Mountain outside Halifax, Dauphin County, for one weekend in June. A second Camp Dragonfly is held at Camp Swatara, near Bethel in Berks County. Established by PinnacleHealth Hospice, Camp Dragonfly was created to provide counseling in a fun summer-camp setting for children aged 6 to 14 who are mourning the death of a loved one. It is a place where these children, most of whom have lost a parent or sibling, can learn the necessary steps for dealing with their grief and meet other kids experiencing the same feelings.

The Bead Lady

On the first day of Camp Dragonfly last June, the basement of Breezewood, the main lodge at the camp, is abuzz with activity. The small room, with wood-paneled walls, a ping-pong table in the center and fluorescent lights overhead, is crowded with kids. In the corner of the room is a large, white heart-shaped balloon. As the kids register, they each receive name buttons and T-shirts like those the camp staff and volunteers wear, goldenrod-colored and emblazoned on the front with a green dragonfly. The eager campers put them on immediately, and the room is transformed into a sea of bouncing, bright yellow. Parents offer last-minute appeals for good behavior and reminders about packed tubes of sunscreen before hugging their children goodbye for the weekend.

Each child is paired with an adult "buddy" who will stay with him or her for the duration of the weekend, acting as chaperone, mentor, friend and shoulder to cry on. All "big buddies" are thoroughly screened for details ranging from hobbies to criminal records, and are matched with their "little buddies" according to mutual interests and backgrounds – including, in most cases, the experience of a similar loss.

A death in the family affects children in profoundly different ways than adults. Parents who have lost a spouse or a child are often so overwhelmed not just by feelings of grief, but also with practical concerns such as loss of income or the need to relocate, that often the emotional needs of the surviving children unintentionally become secondary. At Camp Dragonfly, the buddies represent several days of one-on-one attention from caring, responsive adults, which is essential for re-establishing the child’s sense of security.

As they pair off and make their way to their cabins, with outdoorsy names such as Chickadee Perch, Laurel Haven and Azalea Garden, the big buddies make small talk with their little buddies, who seem slightly apprehensive. In their cabins, the big and little buddies make posters of their personal interests and activities to share at an ice-breaker that evening. The tolling of a heavy bell calls everyone back to the front of Breezewood, and the pack of big and little buddies makes its way, posters in tow, to a pavilion a few hundred yards away.

The campers and their buddies sit on rows of wooden benches, as one of Camp Dragonfly’s main coordinators, Lisa Thomas, stands in front of the crowd, holding two fingers above her head like a peace sign to ask for quiet. Everyone follows suit, and the chatter ceases. She introduces the camp staff, ending with Judy Reed, better known as the Bead Lady. Reed steps forward and passes out lanyards – oval badges attached to leather cords – for each of the big and little buddies to wear. As the campers loop the cords around their necks, the Bead Lady explains that the dragonfly symbolizes courage in Japanese culture. She asks the children to look closely at their lanyards – the front is embossed with a dragonfly, and the word "courage" is written on the back.

One bead is already strung on the lanyards – a black heart. "We know it took a lot of courage for the little buddies to come," the Bead Lady says. "Maybe your heart was a little heavy for coming and leaving your family. This first bead for your lanyards is a sad bead, but we hope you won’t be so sad when you leave here on Sunday."

Without a doubt, the Bead Lady is the most popular person at Camp Dragonfly. Every time the kids participate in an activity – even just showing up for meals – they get a bead to string onto their lanyards. Throughout the weekend, the Bead Lady can be found sitting on a folding lawn chair in front of Breezewood, holding a multilayered tray of beads, separated into tiny compartments by their size and shape, on her lap. As if making an annual visit to Santa Claus, the children line up to receive their beads, with outstretched hands and anxious anticipation at what bead the Bead Lady will choose just for them.

Joe & Mark

Joe Cicero of New Cumberland sits next to his big buddy, Mark Miller, on the concrete basketball court between Breezewood and the pavilion, his legs spread out long in front of him. Joe’s hair, shorn into a fuzzy crewcut, has a series of wiggly stripes in it, painted on with hair dye by a friend on the last day of school – more prank than punk. He claims his mom likes the stripes. His mouth is curled in a constant grin, archipelagoes of freckles splashed across his cheeks and nose. Joe rattles off a list of important things about himself: He likes to play sports and go rollerblading. He just finished the sixth grade a few days ago, and he is 12. He talks about his father in much the same way.

"When he passed away," Joe says, "he was 36. He built desks and furniture. He used to live in New Jersey. He used to be a welder and a guy that used to deal with printing presses. He was small, but more muscle than flab. We spent time together mostly at night when he got home. We’d play football outside or rent videos."

Joe remembers the details of his father’s death with startling accuracy, repeating them almost robotically. "He died on December 9, 1998, at 9:35 in the morning. He died from a massive heart attack. They said something about his cholesterol being high. It happened on his way to work."

For Joe, nighttime is the hardest part – that’s when he and his dad spent most of their time together. He tries hard to keep his sadness to himself for the sake of his two younger sisters. He doesn’t want them to see him cry. "My sister Kelly’s been going to a church-type school, and she says my dad’s gonna come back. My two-year-old sister thinks he’s at work. They cried a little in the beginning, but they didn’t know why."

Joe is getting along well with his big buddy, Mark, a 25-year-old Harrisburg native who now lives in Philadelphia. Mark is quiet and muscular, the words "Rise Above Damage" – from a song by the punk band Black Flag – tattooed on the inside of his left forearm. Much like Joe, Mark lost a father figure when he was very young. Joe and Mark act like brothers, one flicking the other’s ears while he’s talking, teasing and play-punching each other. Their connection after less than 24 hours is touchingly real.

At Camp Dragonfly Joe has found a mentor and friend in Mark. More importantly, he has met other kids who’ve had someone they loved die. "It feels kind of better," he says. "There aren’t many kids who understand. They can say they understand, but they don’t."

Bear Hunt

Campers aged 6 to 10 gather around the stone fire pit on the other side of the pavilion. Sitting in front of the group, Lisa Thomas leads them in a vocal game called "Goin’ on a Bear Hunt." On their "hunt," the children will face many obstacles, including "ooey, gooey mud" and a "cold, swift river." As they encounter each obstacle, they repeat, "Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it."

After the bear hunt, Thomas talks to the children about the inevitable difficulties that come with losing a loved one. She asks the children what challenges they have faced.

"You have to go through life without that person," one child says.

"Sometimes you’re lonely," says another.

"All of the changes and challenges we face after losing someone will always be there," Thomas says. "But guess what? Like the mud and the river, we can’t go over them, we can’t go under them, we have to go through them."

Megan & Louise

In a group session on Saturday afternoon, Dawn Jeziorski, a social worker who volunteers at Camp Dragonfly, asks the campers which of them has ever had a bad day. All of the kids raise their hands and yell "me!" in unison. She asks them if they’ve ever felt mean. Again, all hands shoot up. "It’s OK to feel that way sometimes," Jeziorski says and begins to read them a story called "Mean Soup" about putting all your bad feelings into an imaginary pot and stirring them away. After the story is finished, Jeziorski and the other volunteers pass out photocopied images of a soup kettle. The kids are to fill their kettles with their bad feelings and make their own "mean soup."

Megan Turby is sitting on a bench next to her big buddy, filling her paper soup pot with things that annoy her – primarily her little brother and her cousin, who are too bossy, and her dog, Buddy, who is too noisy. Megan is small and soft-spoken, with wavy brown hair and deep-brown eyes encircled by glasses. She is 8 and has a smiley face drawn on her hand.

"The reason I came to camp is because I lost my uncle, my dad and my grandfather," Megan says. She never knew her uncle and grandfather, but she remembers her father, who died in a motorcycle accident when she was 6. Her brother, David, is also at Camp Dragonfly this year. He was only in preschool when their father died. Megan says her brother doesn’t have many memories of their father or of his death. "It’s the one thing I’ll never forget," she says, and returns to fixing her mean soup.

Megan’s big buddy, Louise Bixler, from Annville, watches her intently as she draws. Bixler has been a buddy at Camp Dragonfly for several years. She learned about the camp from a local newspaper article while she was coping with a tragedy of her own.

"My husband, son and I were in a car accident seven years ago," Bixler says, slowly choosing her words. "My husband and son were killed. And I lost my arm."

Bixler was devastated after the accident and sought out support to help her cope. She had no trouble finding groups for women who’d lost their husbands or for women who’d lost a child, but there were no groups for women who had lost both at the same time. She felt empty after attending the meetings and hearing from mothers who leaned on their spouses for support, or from widows whose children gave them the strength to carry on with their lives. Bixler was alone, mourning the loss of her husband and only child, and dealing with a new, difficult physical disability.

Six months had passed since Bixler read the newspaper article, but she somehow gathered the courage to call and sign up as a volunteer. The experience has been life-altering. "Camp is helping me because it’s helping [children]," Bixler explains. "I need to come to camp as much as they do."

The Rhythm of Memory

Later that evening, the sound of drumbeats punctuates the calm, muggy air. The campers mill about in front of Breezewood and are asked to remain quiet and follow the sound of the drumming. It leads them to the pavilion, where Camille Baughman, a smiling woman with long blond hair, streaked with silver, is rhythmically pounding a large drum hanging from a strap around her shoulders.

She asks the children to each take a ping-pong paddle—shaped drum and a mallet from a box in the back. Various tribal-looking percussion instruments are placed on a blanket in the center of the pavilion, and Baughman invites the adults to use them. Soon everyone has an instrument and is seated on the benches framing the perimeter of the pavilion. Baughman continues drumming, and all the campers and volunteers begin playing with her.

Standing in the center, Baughman beams as she leads the beat and everyone follows. On the count of three, with a sweeping gesture like that of an orchestra conductor, she stops them. She explains her guidelines to the campers: The mallets hit only the paddles, not other drums and not other people. She also requires everyone to have fun. With a smile, she raises her hands and the drumming – pulsing, soulful, intoxicating – begins again.

A certified massage therapist in Carlisle, Baughman is associated with Earth Rhythms, a drumming group and shop in Reading that sponsors outreach programs in Central PA. She believes drumming is a good physical and psychological exercise for children, particularly those who are struggling with overwhelming, difficult emotions.

"We all know that music can evoke emotions in us," she explains. "When you do a drumming exercise, you feel it in your body.… It’s an experience. It’s a way to access memory. It’s the same as people who’ve passed on – memory connects us to them."

Baughman stops the drummers again, urging them to calm down before she starts a brief meditation session. Music creates community, she explains. "We brought us together with song," she says. "We didn’t have to talk. All that energy we just had, you put that inside you and use it to help you through your rough times."


At the end of the weekend, after all the bags have been packed and the cabins have been cleaned, the children and their buddies make their way to the lake, half a mile from the camp, for the closing ceremony. The air is stifling and humid. Children and adults alike complain of thirst and tired feet. When they reach a small grassy spot next to the lake, they form a circle and hold hands.

The camp staffers are in the center, one holding the heart-shaped balloon, on which the children, over the course of the weekend, have scribbled messages to their loved ones:

"Dad, I love u + I miss u."

"Dear Brendan, little brother, I miss you and I love you."

"Mom, God will take care of you."

There is silence as one of the staffers pushes the play button on a boombox, and the strains of Tracy Chapman singing "The Promise" fill the still summer air. The balloon is released into the June sky. The children, understanding the symbolism, begin to cry. It is an emotional release many of them have not yet had, this weekend or ever. Some sit down on the ground, some hug their buddies tightly, and others wander to the edge of the lake, alone.

A few boys pick up stones and hurl them into the water, watching the ripples as the stones skip over the surface. More children join them, some pointing out the dragonflies flitting over the lake, their tiny wings like jewels in the sunlight. Soon their tears are replaced with laughter and, for the moment, their sadness with joy. 

Helping Children Understand Death

According to PinnacleHealth Hospice and the book Helping Bereaved Children by Dr. Nancy Boyd Webb, a clinical social worker and professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, children experience death differently, depending on their ages. These stages follow Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s (1896—1980) theories of the cognitive development of children.

AGES 2—7 Children cannot understand the finality and irreversibility of death. Paige Payne, support-service manager at PinnacleHealth Hospice, explains that children at this age tend to engage in "magical thinking," often perpetuated by the experience of extreme bodily harm without death with cartoon characters, such as the Coyote and Road Runner. They may believe their loved one is at work or on a trip and will be coming home soon. There is also a feeling of guilt associated with magical thinking – the child may believe if she had behaved better at school, her father would not have died.

AGES 7—11 Elementary-school children understand that death is irreversible and that, one day, everyone will die. Children of this age, however, believe death happens only to older or physically weak people. The concept of death assumes scary physical forms, such as skeletons or ghosts.

AGES 9—12 By the age of 11, children’s thinking becomes logical. They are capable of dealing with abstract ideas, as well as with the concrete. For example, children ages 9—12 often represent death with the color black, while simultaneously understanding that when someone dies, his body no longer functions. They fully grasp that death is final, though it is still far in the future, reserved for the aged and the sick.

Camp Dragonfly tries to aid children in various stages of grief and with different understandings of death by providing the campers with a variety of activities. Lisa Thomas, volunteer-program manager at PinnacleHealth Hospice, does much of the planning for Camp Dragonfly each year. "Everything we do has a purpose and has therapeutic value," she says. "I think the group environment is one of the best aspects – simply getting kids together with other kids helps them to not feel so isolated. They’re there with an adult [buddy], someone who’s not in their everyday life. They know they can come and unload on them, and it’s a safe place. We try so many different things with every child – we hope something will hit each of them."

Thomas claims the most difficult event of the weekend is the balloon release during the closing ceremony. But it is also the most therapeutic. "Kids work in the concrete," she says. "Death isn’t concrete to kids. The ritual of the launch adds closure. The act of writing messages to their loved ones is tangible."

The volunteers at Camp Dragonfly understand that the children’s sadness and grief will not disappear after one weekend. They have no delusions about the camp’s purpose. "We’re giving them skills to learn to grieve," Paige Payne explains. "The weekend isn’t for healing. It’s to give them the language, give them the words to open some doors and help them identify the people that are their support."

For More Information

Camp Dragonfly is one of PinnacleHealth’s outreach programs for grieving children. This year two separate Camp Dragonfly events will be held, on different weekends and at different locations:

Dates: June 1-3, 2001

Location: Camp Swatara, Rt. 645, Bethel

Dates: June 8-10, 2001

Location: Camp Hebron, Rt. 225N, Halifax

Camp Dragonfly is free of charge for children ages 6-14, and reservations are first come, first served. PinnacleHealth organizes the program as part of its community-outreach activities and solicits additional funding support from private corporations.

PinnacleHealth Hospice also sponsors an overnight camp for teens, ages 13-17, dealing with grief. Camp Draco is held each April at Camp Hebron in Halifax. It is also free of charge.

To volunteer or learn more about Camp Dragonfly or Camp Draco, contact PinnacleHealth Hospice, 3705 Elmwood Drive, Harrisburg, PA 17110; (800) 889-1098; www.pinnaclehealth.org


© 2000 WITF Inc.
The print edition of Central PA magazine is sold at selected newsstands and is also available as a member benefit of public broadcasting station WITF, Harrisburg, PA, for a minimum contribution of $45 (seniors and students $25). Become a member online.

Back to This Month's Features.












Central Stories | Central Style | Thinking Aloud | Agenda | Cameo
Events Calendar | Books | Food | The Phantom Diner | President's Message | Archive

Copyright ©2001, Central PA - WITF's Monthly Magazine, WITF Inc.