Tag Archives: Sara Deren

“Day Of Champions” Will Be Quite An Experience

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.

For much of its first decade, Experience Camps — founded by Westporter Sara Deren — relied on gala fundraisers in big cities, and foundation grants.

In 2017 Deren asked fellow Westport resident Gery Grove to help raise funds here. She teamed with Melissa Post, who like Grove loved the idea of the camp.

They thought about the usual events, like cocktail parties. But they realized the best way to raise money for kids was to involve kids themselves.

Together with a hard-working committee, they launched the first Day of Champions in 2018.

Fun at Experience Camps’ Day of Champions …

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.

It wasn’t.

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.)

Quite An Experience!

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.

Here’s how they did it.

(Photos/Stephen Dodd)

New England Patriots Make Sara Deren A Winner

Whether you love the New England Patriots or loathe them, you gotta like this story.

Last Sunday, during halftime of the regular season finale versus the New York Jets, the team honored volunteers who make a difference in the world.

During every home game this year, they recognized a “Patriots Difference Maker of the Week.” On Sunday, each received a $5,000 grant to support the nonprofits for which they volunteer.

And guess who got a special $20,000 grant — sort of a Super Bowl championship for all Difference Makers?

Sara Deren of Westport.

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.

Bereaved Kids Enjoy Great Camp Experience

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.”

(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.)