Turlock day camp offers support for kids dealing with grief

mrowland@modbee.comJuly 26, 2013 

    alternate textMarijke Rowland
    Title: Arts & Entertainment Writer
    Coverage areas: Fine arts, pop culture and other entertainment throughout the Central Valley and foothills.
    Bio: Marijke Rowland has been a reporter at The Bee for 15 years. She grew up in the Midwest and has a degree in journalism from Indiana University. She has covered several beats at The Bee from education to entertainment to employment.
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— Grief is grief, but camp is also still camp.

It was with a mix of smiles of reflection that more than 50 children, along with parents and volunteers, got together for the first Jessica's House Grief Day Camp. The event was meant to honor the memories of loved ones lost and have fun with the people present.

The one-day camp in Turlock's Crane Park last Thursday was run through the grief support program Jessica's House, which serves children and their families who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Started in April 2012, the program is run by Emanuel Medical Center and has its own site in downtown Turlock.

Organizers said the day camp was another way to get children and their families together, make friends, share experiences and express their feelings increative ways.

"What I observed all day was that grief was made normal," said Emanuel spokeswoman Pennie Rorex. "It was a safe place to talk about grief, which can be a very awkward conversation. It was just really impressive to see the staff, volunteers and campers' commitment. How together they made it OK to express grief. And they did it through a creative and fun ways."

Activities to honor loved ones

The camp was open to children in kindergarten through eighth grade. The day was filled with regular camp games like a hula hoop pass, "wooden" plank walk and parachute runs. But it also included activities like decorating shoes for the person close to them who died and virtually planting a memory garden.

The shoe decorations were one of the day's biggest crafts. Children could bring a shoe from home or use one of the ones provided. They then painted and adorned them with accessories to honor their loss.

One boy put a single shell amid the decorations on his shoe to symbolize the day his grandmother had planned to take him to the beach, but passed away instead. Another girl put black yarn on hers to represent her father's black hair.

Hughson resident Christi Aguiar brought her children, 11-year-old Rylie and 7-year-old Dominic, to the camp and stayed the day to volunteer. The family has been going to Jessica's House support groups since Aguiar's husband and the children's father died unexpectedly from a heart problem in February.

"It was amazing to see all the children that came out to be with each other," she said. "They all got along and had something in common."

Aguiar said the support groups have greatly helped her family and made them feel less alone during a difficult time. All of Jessica's House services are free, as was the day camp.

The center has three regular staff as well as 30 volunteers. In its first year it served 120 children in the community.

The camp brought out 55 campers, 15 junior counselors (high-school aged Jessica's House participants) and 40 adult volunteers.

Jessica's House is named after Jessica Everett, a little girl from Turlock who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 6 and was treated at Emanuel Medical Center. She died in 2004 at age 9.

Rorex said Jessica's House plans to make the Grief Day Camp an annual event. Those who attended, like Aguiar, said they look forward to returning next summer.

"Absolutely, we would attend next year and at any function they have," she said. "I feel fortunate they are in my area that my kids and myself have some place to go to."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/turlocknow.'What I observed all day was that grief was made normal' — Emanuel spokeswoman Pennie Rorex

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