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MIT Sloan students and staff step outside the classroom to help at kids’ grief camp

Camp Erin program pairs children who have experienced loss with adult volunteers

December 3, 2014

Camp Erin volunteers Leah Schouten, Diego Rodriguez Pinhao, Blair Holbrook, and Guillermo Pamanes

Camp Erin volunteers Leah Schouten, Diego Rodriguez Pinhao, Blair Holbrook, and Guillermo Pamanes

The dual-degree Leaders for Global Operations program at MIT Sloan is known for its fast pace, rigor, and technical focus; its students earn both a master’s in engineering and an advanced management degree in just two years.

But this past August, three LGO students and one staff member took time away from campus to volunteer at a grief camp for children on the north shore of Massachusetts. Camp Erin Boston is a free overnight camp for New England children ages six through 17 who have recently experienced the death of a parent or someone else close to them. The camp—held at Camp Bauercrest in Amesbury, Mass.—is staffed by grief professionals and trained volunteers.

Seattle native Blair Holbrook, LGO ’16, has regularly volunteered at the camp and with hospice organizations over the past eight years, and he initiated LGO’s involvement this summer. Diego Rodriguez Pinhao and Guillermo Pamanes, both LGO ’16, also volunteered as camp “buddies,” as did Leah Schouten, assistant director at MIT Sloan Admissions, who was formerly an admissions coordinator in the Leaders for Global Operations office.

Each volunteer was paired with a child whom they had met previously at a scheduled ice cream social. All of the camp volunteers underwent a short training session, where it was suggested that they should allow the children to bring up the recent loss if they want, but not to broach the subject themselves.

Holbrook said this low-key strategy works brilliantly. “For anyone who knows kids, you know you can’t force a topic with them. You have to look for the moment when the right time arrives,” he said.

A time for grief—and games

The students and Schouten said the camp’s atmosphere was a lot lighter than they thought it would be.

“We were there to have fun with the kids,” said Rodriguez Pinhao, who lost his own father at 13. He admitted he was nervous that the little boy he was paired with would ask him difficult spiritual questions about death, but the camp administrators assured him that was unlikely.

   LGO student Guillermo Pamanes, right, spends time with his camper at Camp Erin<br/>Photo: Jessamyn MartinLGO student Guillermo Pamanes, right, spends time with his camper at Camp Erin
Photo: Jessamyn Martin

Pamanes, who hasn’t experienced the death of a loved one, said he was also hesitant that he might not be able to offer support to his camper child, a 10-year-old Latino boy who was grieving the loss of his father. But Pamanes soon realized that the kids there mostly wanted to have fun. Pamanes, who is from Mexico, bonded with the boy by speaking Spanish and playing soccer with him. “I’m terrible at soccer, but I still had a lot of fun with him,” he laughed. “It’s one of those things where you can make a big impact on someone. It was a very, very amazing atmosphere.”

The camp offers a mix of structured activities designed to help children confront the grieving process, as well as fun options like swimming, boating, taekwondo, and arts and crafts. On the first day, the kids were told they could decorate a photo of their loved one, and then place it on a designated wall in front of all the other campers, if they chose to do so. The buddies accompanied the kids if they wanted extra support.

Rodriguez Pinhao said initially his camper didn’t want to go up in front of everyone, and asked him to do it for him. But, after seeing a few of the other children walk to the wall themselves, the boy said, “You know, Diego, I can do it.” Rodriguez said the experience of being around other children who have lost someone is a healing influence for the campers.

Holbrook agreed and recounted a moment on a sailboat when the 12-year-old boy he was paired with approached the topic of loss. “When you are in a safe place … that’s often the time that they will decide to talk about it.” After the moment passes, the kids are typically ready to move on and have some more fun.

A bonding experience

Schouten said she was surprised by how much joy she felt in what could have been a somber environment.

“The weekend was jam-packed. A lot of it involved really fun activities, but some were grief activities. They were designed to allow these kids to open up and let them know that mourning is OK, and that grief is OK,” Schouten said.

Schouten was paired with an 8-year-old girl who had lost her father. “She had suffered a very recent loss and it was something she was beginning to wrap her head around,” Schouten recalled. “She was really starting to talk about it for the first time … and she had felt isolated, but then she realized that she’s not the only kid out there to lose a parent.”

Schouten said it was also a terrific bonding experience for the Leaders for Global Operations students, and Holbrook agreed. “The LGOs come in force,” Holbrook said. “When you need something, there are 50 people behind you revving to go.”

The volunteer buddies and the campers were given the opportunity to reunite at a couple of planned follow up events this past fall, but other than that, they will not see one another again.

Schouten said she has already committed to volunteering again next summer, and the students said they would do it again, too, if their schedules permit.

Because Holbrook has volunteered for hospice organizations for nearly a decade, he said an experience like this puts life in perspective. “We have a finite amount of time to do something … so we should find something that matters,” he said.

Rodriguez Pinhao agreed, and said it reminded him that it’s important to remain grateful in life. “You see these kids out there who have just lost a mom or dad. And, then, they are having so much fun, and you think, ‘I can’t be complaining about the things in my day-to-day life when there are people out there who really come from tough situations.’”

Camp Erin was created by the Moyer Foundation, which was established by Major League All-Star pitcher Jamie Moyer, and his wife, Karen. The camp was named in memory of their friend, Erin Metcalf, who died from liver cancer at age 17. The first Camp Erin was established in Everett, Wash., and it is now the largest nationwide network of free grief camps for children, according to the Moyer Foundation.

Camp Erin Boston is a partnership between Parmenter Community Health Care in Wayland, Mass., and the Moyer Foundation.