For many Westport youngsters, summer camp is a rite of passage. They spend weeks in the woods, doing fun stuff and forming lifelong friendships in an environment far different from suburbia.
A few spend only 1 week at Experience Camp. But for them — and the 550 boys and girls ages 9 to 16, who attend one of 4 sites in New York, California and Georgia — it is a profound, even life-changing, time.
Experience Camp is for youngsters who have lost a parent or sibling.
Most of the time is spent in typical camp activities — swimming, arts and crafts, campfires.
But with the guidance of licensed clinicians, campers find opportunities to share their life stories with kids who are just like them. They learn that grief, isolation and loss is not theirs alone.
Experience Camp is directed by Westporters Jon and Sara Deren. It’s headquartered right here in Westport.
The national organization has kept a low profile in town. But on May 20 Experience Camp holds its first-ever fundraiser. Money raised will keep camp free, for every youngster who attends.
The “Day of Champions” is set for Camp Mahackeno — a perfect choice for this camp-like color war/field day. Twenty teams of 10 to 15 people each (kindergarten through adult) compete in sponge races, an obstacle course, toothpick pickup contest with oven mitts, archery and others activities.
Points are awarded for spirit, fundraising, cheering and more. It will be a day of laughter and fun.
Of course, it’s bittersweet. Many members of the planning committee lost a parent, sibling or spouse at an early age.
Rory Murray’s husband was killed in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Their daughter Aly was 5 months old.
Five years later, she attended Camp Better Days. The 1-week program on Lake George brought together scores of children of 9/11 victims.
Aly went back the next year. And the next, and next.
She’s now a Staples High School junior. She’ll head back this summer, for the final time. The friends she’s made there — the youngest group that began at the camp — head to college next year. Camp Better Days has served its purpose, and will close in August.
“This has become her family,” Rory says. “It’s a safe haven, where they can be and say anything. Aly moves heaven and earth to go there.”
As she thought about the end of Camp Better Days, Rory learned about Experience Camp. Immediately, she volunteered to help.
“The Day of Champions will help provide all the wonderful things Aly had,” Rory says.
“For kids who lost a sibling or parent, having a place to go is magical. There’s implicit trust, and lots of love. Realizing you’re not alone, that you’ve got other people to lean on, cry and laugh with, is so powerful. This 1-week escape is a gift for these children, and their families.”
Rory, Aly and her family will be one of the 20 teams participating in the Day of Champions. Many slots are already filled.
But there’s still room for a few teams. So be a champion! It’s a “camp experience” that’s even sweeter than a s’more.
(The Day of Champions is set for Sunday, May 20, 9 to 11 a.m., at Camp Mahackeno behind the Westport Weston Family YMCA. To register a team, or for more information, click here. To donate without participating, click here.)