from Central PA magazine, May 2001
A simple child
That lightly draws
And feels its life
in every limb
What should it know
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, its easy to
forget these children are here because someone they loved has
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 childs 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 Dragonflys 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 wont 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. Joes 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.
Wed play football outside or rent videos."
Joe remembers the details of his
fathers 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 thats 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 doesnt want them
to see him cry. "My sister Kellys been going to a church-type
school, and she says my dads gonna come back. My two-year-old
sister thinks hes at work. They cried a little in the beginning,
but they didnt 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 others ears while hes
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 whove had someone they loved die. "It feels kind
of better," he says. "There arent many kids who
understand. They can say they understand, but they dont."
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, "Cant go over it, cant
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
"You have to go through life
without that person," one child says.
"Sometimes youre lonely,"
"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 cant
go over them, we cant go under them, we have to go through
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 theyve ever felt mean. Again, all
hands shoot up. "Its 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
doesnt have many memories of their father or of his death.
"Its the one thing Ill never forget," she
says, and returns to fixing her mean soup.
Megans 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
Bixler was devastated after the
accident and sought out support to help her cope. She had no trouble
finding groups for women whod lost their husbands or for
women whod 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
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 its helping [children],"
Bixler explains. "I need to come to camp as much as they
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 paddleshaped 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
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
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.
experience. Its a way to access memory. Its the same
as people whove 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 didnt 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
"Dad, I love u + I miss u."
"Dear Brendan, little brother,
I miss you and I love you."
"Mom, God will take care of
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
According to PinnacleHealth Hospice
and the book Helping Bereaved Children by Dr. Nancy Boyd
Webb, a clinical social worker and professor at Fordham Universitys
Graduate School of Social Service, children experience death differently,
depending on their ages. These stages follow Swiss psychologist
Jean Piagets (18961980) theories of the cognitive
development of children.
AGES 27 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 711 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 912 By
the age of 11, childrens thinking becomes logical. They
are capable of dealing with abstract ideas, as well as with the
concrete. For example, children ages 912 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. Theyre there with an adult [buddy],
someone whos not in their everyday life. They know they
can come and unload on them, and its 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 isnt 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 childrens sadness and grief will not
disappear after one weekend. They have no delusions about the
camps purpose. "Were giving them skills to learn
to grieve," Paige Payne explains. "The weekend isnt
for healing. Its 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 PinnacleHealths
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.
Dates: June 8-10, 2001
Location: Camp Hebron, Rt. 225N,
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
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
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