Camp supports parents who’ve lost loved ones, too

Rachel Rice and her son, Ethan, will be back at Camp Healing Heart in October. When they arrived last year, two very important things helped the grieving mother acclimate.

First, organizers explained exactly what the kids would be doing all day so parents and caregivers wouldn’t worry. Next, Carle staff invited adults to stay and get to know one another so they could gain even more support during the toughest of times.

“It was so worth staying all day,” said Rachel, whose husband, Jason, committed suicide in December 2014. “It was very helpful to talk with other parents who are going through similar circumstances.”

Camp is Saturday, October 1 at the University of Illinois 4-H Memorial Camp near Monticello for children ages 5-17 who have lost a loved one. Each camper pairs up with a volunteer buddy to play, learn and remember. Campers need to apply for the free camp by September 23.

“We spend a lot of camp encouraging kiddos to talk to their loved ones about their loss, but we wanted to give parents tools to be able to have those conversations at home,” said Brynn Howard, MSW, LCSW, a Carle Home Services social worker.

“We wanted to also provide support for the parents and guardians who also experienced significant loss.” 

At camp, Ethan will take a break from his Legos and his Minecraft to spend time with others who deal with the sadness of missing family and friends. He still looks through the memory box he made last year.

Talking about it prompts both tears and smiles for Rachel.

“His memory box has photos of Ethan and Dad, lots of stickers and shoes and glasses,” she said. “Jason wore glasses, and I think Ethan chose a shoe because his dad was a big man and his shoe represents a sturdy foundation.”

Rachel, a special education co-teacher at Oakwood Grade School, likes that Ethan, a first-grader at First Baptist Christian School in Danville, is part of a tight-knit community that knows the family’s situation.

“It’s smaller, more understanding. Ethan doesn’t have to explain a thousand times why he’s upset. They know he’s missing Dad,” she said.

She wants families considering Camp Healing Heart to know organizers take great care of children and adults.

“I’ll never forget those first few minutes last year. We had just left our babies with complete strangers,” Rachel said. “They assured us they were in good hands. We didn’t even have to ask.

“That made it so much easier to settle in and take it all in.”

Visit Carle.org/hospice or call 217-383-3151 to sign up a camper and for more information. Free to campers and their families, Camp Healing Heart is funded through Carle Center for Philanthropy.