When Darren was 10 years old, his father committed suicide. Like many children who have lost a parent or sibling, he felt not only the sting of death, but isolation from his peers. He was different, he thought, from every other kid.
Fortunately, he attended Experience Camp. Every summer, bereaved youngsters come together for a week. Most of their time is spent in typical camp activities — swimming, arts and crafts, campfires.
But with the guidance of licensed clinicians, they find opportunities to share their life stories with kids who are just like them.
Darren did not say a word all week about his situation. Nevertheless, he came back the next year. And the year after. The year after that, too.
Finally — in his 4th summer at “ExCamp” — a counselor told Darren privately that he too had lost his father to suicide. Tentatively, Darren opened up.
The next year, Darren became a leader. Today, he’s a counselor helping other kids share their own stories.
To Sara Deren, that’s what ExCamp is all about. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, she says. But caring support allows hundreds of youngsters to move on from the trauma of losing a loved one.
Deren is a Westporter. And Experience Camps — which has grown from one site and 27 kids in 2009, to a network of 4 camps in New York, California and Georgia, with 200 volunteers serving 500 boys and girls ages 9 to 16 a year — is headquartered right here in Westport.
Deren never went to summer camp. She had a high-powered career in financial services. But she married into a camp family. Her husband Jon owned Camp Manitou for boys in Maine.
Deren quickly learned about the wonders of camp. She and her husband also recognized that its high price prevented many youngsters from enjoying the growth of a summer in the woods.
In 2008 they formed a foundation, with the broad mission of providing a camp experience to those who could not afford it. When they learned that Tapawingo — another Maine camp — ran a bereavement program for girls, they realized they could fulfill their goal by setting up a parallel week for boys.
Experience Camp began the next year. It ran the week after Manitou’s regular session ended.
It filled a crucial need. “For a kid, death can be incredibly isolating,” Deren says. “Feeling ‘less normal’ than everyone else — and not having a way to express it — can lead to detrimental actions, sometimes years later. This gives kids a place where they don’t feel alone. A lot of times it’s the only place where everyone understands what they’re going through.”
Many campers return each year, Deren adds, “because grief changes too.”
Darren — the boy who grew into a leader, after 4 years of silence — is one example of the wonders of Ex Camp. There are many more.
Steven’s father spent years in a vegetative state after a car accident, before finally dying. A year later, Steven’s mother succumbed to cancer. An only child with no other relatives, he was adopted by the woman who nursed his mother before she died.
Despite his horrific childhood, Steven had not lost his smart, articulate, mature personality. At the camp’s talent competition he recited all the presidents’ names — backward and forward — and held up a sign about running for president. He was named “Mr. ManEx” (Manitou Experience).
Campers rushed the stage to embrace him. “For the first time, he experienced a real family,” Deren says.
He returns to Ex Camp every year, “paying it forward.”
Deren serves as executive director of Experience Camps. Her office is in downtown Westport, right above Brooks Brothers (coincidentally, just down the hall from another Maine camp, Laurel).
She loves her work. Now — in addition to planning 4 summer sessions — she’s looking ahead to year-round efforts. “We do camp really well,” Deren says. “But we also want a way for kids to stay connected all year long.”
One of her jobs is fundraising. No child pays anything — including bus transportation to and from camp.
It costs $1,000 for a week at camp. That’s all covered, thanks to individual donations, foundation grants and fundraisers.
All the hard work is worth it.
“The feeling of fulfillment — of making a difference, and giving other people an opportunity to make a difference too — is fantastic,” Deren says.
“Our supporters, our volunteers, our campers — everyone works together to create a microcosm of how the world should operate: with acceptance and inclusion.
“Being able to provide a way for kids to thrive, to find happiness and lightness in an otherwise dark time — what an incredible privilege.”
(Click here to learn more about Experience Camps. Click here for a series of powerful videos, and here for resources for helping youngsters deal with grief.)