Early fog could not obscure the smiles on the faces of hundreds of children — and adults — this morning at PJ Romano Field.
And it sure could not hide the joy of organizers. The “Day of Champions” returned after a 2-year COVID hiatus. And everyone was a winner.
Jumping through the Ninja course. (Photo/Amy Shapiro)
The event is a fundraiser for Experience Camps — the national network of summer camps and year-round programming for children grieving the death of a parent or sibling.
Founded by Sara Deren and headquartered in Westport, it’s a national non-profit. But today’s “Day of Champions” — bringing together a couple of dozen teams, competing in a “color war” with games, contests, dancing and more — had a distinctly local flavor, with hundreds of participants and volunteers.
The “En Fuego team” was on fire. (Photo/Amy Shapiro)
Each team committed to raising $1,000. But the total for the day — $150,000 — blew that goal out of the water.
Grief knows no socioeconomic bounds. Every child attends Experience Camps for free. Events like today’s make that possible.
The “Day of Champions” is a family (and friends) affair. (Photo/Amy Shapiro)
Another Ninja. (Photo/Amy Shapiro)
Another (hungry) team. (Photo/Amy Shapiro)
Volunteers included (from left) Jen Tooker, Candice Savin and Andrea Moore. Westport’s 3 selectwomen “womanned” the welcome table. (Photo/Dan Woog)
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.
A week at Experience Camp is filled with fun.
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.
The Day of Champions is filled with fun …
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).
… and games.
“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.)
Westport is awash in organizations that benefit young people — here, in the rest of Fairfield County, the country and the world. It’s one of the strengths of our community.
Many throw fundraisers. Westporters support them generously, with time as well as money.
But most of these kid-focused groups’ events don’t actually involve young people themselves.
That’s why Experience Camp’s Day of Champions is so wonderful.
Not to mention unique, cool, and tons of fun.
Experience Camp is the Westport-based network of summer camps for youngsters who have lost a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. The program builds confidence, encourages laughter, and allows them to navigate grief through friendship, teamwork, sports and the common bond of loss.
This year, Experience Camps will serve 1,000 boys and girls, at 5 locations from Maine to California.
Of course, running such a life-changing program costs money: $1,000 for a week at camp.
Camp Mahackeno was the perfect venue for the camp-like color war/field day. Twenty teams of 10 to 15 people each (kindergarten through adult) competed in sponge races, an obstacle course, toothpick pickup contest with oven mitts, archery and others activities. Many wore costumes.
Points were awarded for spirit, fundraising, cheering and more. It was a joyful day — and it brought in over $150,000.
… and funny hair …
To participate, teams had to raise at least $1,000. Some were well over $25,000.
Organizers feared the first year might have been a fluke.
Last year’s Day of Champions brought in more than $225,000. Over the past 2 years, Westport’s Michelle Yanover — who lost her mom at 7 — has raised over $45,000. Working with his New York Life firm, Grove’s husband Matt added another $40,000-plus.
… and a tug-of-war …
This year’s 3rd annual event is Sunday, May 17 (8 to 11:30 a.m.). Due to construction at Mahackeno, it’s moved to another great location: Fairfield County Hunt Club.
Yet as fun and financially important as the Day of Champions is, there’s another element that makes it special.
… and more fun. (Photos/Stephen Dodd)
“It teaches kids a lot,” Grove says. “They learn there are other kids who need their support — kids who don’t have their entire family here anymore.
“Kids get a chance to raise money for a resonant cause. And they have the best time doing it. Our lives are busy, but families come and do this together. Kids, teachers, parents, town officials — everyone puts concerns and differences aside for the day. It’s a great time!”
(Click here to register a team. Spectators are welcome too.)
Experience Camp — the life-changing summer program for youngsters who have lost a parent or sibling, based in Westport and directed by our neighbor Sara Deren — held its 2nd annual Day of Champions yesterday, at Camp Mahackeno.
Over 450 kids and volunteers had an amazing time. And, amazingly, they raised over $183,000 for this great cause.
Jon and Sara Deren, and their children, at the Gillette Stadium halftime ceremony last Sunday.
She and her husband Jon founded Experience Camps. Headquartered right here in town, the organization runs summer camps for children grieving the death of a parent or sibling.
In just 10 years Experience Camps has grown from one site and 27 youngsters, to a network of 5 camps nationwide. Last summer, 200 volunteers served 600 boys and girls ages 8 to 18.
Doing all the typical camp activities — and, guided by clinicians, remembering the loved one who died while developing the tools they need to work through grief — Experience Camp campers enjoy life-affirming, life-changing opportunities.
The New England Patriots Foundation receives hundreds of nominations for Difference Makers each year.
When the Foundation — along with Pats chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett — honored Sara on Sunday, it was a moment when, for once, Patriots and Jets fans could stand and cheer together.
Sara Deren is definitely a winner.
PS: So were the Patriots. They beat the Jets 38-3.
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.
Jon and Sara Deren
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.
Using crayons, campers express their feelings after someone very close has died.
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.
A week at Experience Camp is filled with fun.
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.”
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