In the past 2 years, over 200,000 children lost a parent or caregiver to COVID.
One in 13 children experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18.
Those statistics are sobering. So is the realization that most surviving youngsters feel different, isolated and alone.
Since 2009, Experience Camps has provided a way for boys and girls to share their grief — and move on from the trauma of losing a loved one.
The project grew from 1 site and 27 kids, to a network of 7 summer camps in 5 states serving more than 1,000 children, plus year-round programs. Because death and grief touch youngsters in all socioeconomic brackets, the entire week is free.
And it’s headquartered right here in Westport.
Sara Deren traded a career in financial services for the challenge of developing Experience Camps. (Her “experience”: Her husband Jon owned Camp Manitou for boys in Maine.)
Today she oversees all the camps, along with weekend retreats, leadership training and online sessions, from an office in Brooks Corner. She is proud that through friendship, teamwork and the common bond of loss, thousands of youngsters have gained confidence, regained hope — and begun to laugh and love life again.
The pandemic hit Experience Camps especially hard, though. In 2020, at the same time more children than ever were losing loved ones, the in-camp experience had to move entirely online.
Last year brought a limited program, with many restrictions. The fear of more illness was hard on kids who were already suffering. But they found joy in being together, with others who knew what they were going through.
COVID also shut down Experience Camps’ fun — and important — fundraisers.
In 2018 and ’19, the first Day of Champions was held at Camp Mahackeno. Twenty teams of 12 to 15 people each — kindergarten through adult — competed in sponge races, an obstacle course, toothpick pickup contest with oven mitts, archery and other activities. It was like a huge camp color war.
Each team was asked to raise $1,000. Sara expected to make $20,000.
But the 2019 Day of Champions brought in $150,000.
“I was amazed and awed,” she says. “They blew it out of the water. Everyone was incredibly committed — and very competitive.”
On May 15, the Day of Champions returns. From 9 to 11:30 a.m., at a new site — PJ Romano Field, between Saugatuck and Kings Highway Elementary Schools — kids and adults will run, dance and hula hoop their way toward victory (dressed in vibrant, creative gear representing their team colors).
It’s family-friendly — and fiercely (but fun) competitive.
Michelle Yanover is among the Day of Champions’ strongest champions.
The Westport mom has spent 31 years without her own mother. Laurie Goldfarb died at 33, after battling leukemia. Michelle was 7 years old.
“Over the years, I’ve learned you never get over ‘it.’ ‘It’ becomes part of your story, woven into the fabric of your whole being,” she says.
“But given the right chance, love and support from unimaginable loss there grows strength.”
Four years ago Michelle volunteered at Experience Camp. She experienced the magic that happens when a grieving child gets a week to be “normal” — while also getting support for their loss.
She was inspired by the work of the staff and counselors, and gratified by the smiles on campers’ faces.
Michelle has already signed up a team for the May 15 Day of Champions (and wants hers to become the top fundraising team of all). She’s eager to help the 7 summer camps (and other activities, including a meet-them-where-they-are moderated online space in Minecraft, that replicates camp).
“Our fingers are crossed for a pretty normal summer ,” Sara says. “There is a huge need. A lot of grief has been sitting in people’s homes.”
In addition to COVID deaths, more youngsters than ever have lost parents and siblings to suicide and overdoses.
“Those are alarming trends,” Sara notes. “It’s especially important, with stigmatizing types of death, for kids to have a place to go.”
Which is why she urges as many people as possible to form teams for the May 15 Day of Champions.
“Two years off has built an amazing amount of anticipation,” she says. “This will be one of Westport’s first big post-pandemic events.
“It’s spring. It’s outside. It’s a large gathering of the community, returning to joy, fun, silliness, costumes and music. That’s such a great parallel to grief.
“And it’s what we do every day at Experience Camps.”
(For more information on the May 15 Day of Champions — including creating, joining or registering a team — click here. For more information on Experience Camps, click here. For a very cool trailer, click below.)