When Taylor Stepper lost her grandmother when she was 14, she thought she was alone in her grief. Like most teens who suffer the loss of a close relative, Taylor didn't feel safe talking to her family about her pain. So she held most of it in, even to her HPH Hospice Children's Assistance Program counselor.
And when that counselor suggested Taylor attend a weekend camp for grieving children, she went reluctantly, not really believing it would make a difference.
But it did. Taylor found solace in kids her own age, who spoke about their pain with words she understood because she was feeling the same way.
Taylor, now 17, revisited the camp earlier this month, a mixed blessing since it took another death to bring her back. This time, she lost her father.
"I didn't want to come," she said, "because I hadn't really talked about my father yet."
Taylor was among 83 young people, ages 10 to 18, who spent a weekend at the annual bereavement camp in Lakewood Retreat, east of Brooksville. Each child was recommended by an HPH counselor to attend. And each faced the enormous burden of healing after losing someone special.
HPH's annual camp for children is designed to help the youngest victims of death deal with their grief.
Bereavement and Children's Assistance Program manager Laura Finch, said each activity the children complete during the three-day weekend has an underlying purpose.
"The way I explain it to the kids is that it's a lot of fun but it's going to be a lot of healing too," Finch explained. "And everything we do has a purpose."
When they arrive Friday evening, the children are assigned to a cabin with peers their own age and sex. They have never met before, which helps them open up without fear of judgment.
Activities begin almost immediately and include structured activities, hand-picked for a specific purpose. Some encourage the kids to share their stories. Others involve team building tasks that help them lose their reserve just enough so they can begin to trust.
They are put through a rigorous schedule that mixes creative tasks with physical exertion, meant to get their minds thinking while their bodies tire.
"When you're active, it lowers defenses," Finch explained. "They are able to be more vulnerable and share their feelings."
The campers were introduced to a craft where they chose theater masks made of plaster, either a smile or a frown. The kids then decorated it with feathers, glitter, jewels and other crafty materials. They were encouraged later to discuss their masks, why they chose an expression, and what it represented to them.
They played a team sport, kickball, to help them learn how to work together. They swam in the sparkling blue pool water of the Olympic-sized pool. Some floated near the side, listening to others engaging in conversation or sharing pieces of their own experiences. They played foosball, pool and table tennis in the game room.
As the day drew to a close, the participants were prepared to express their feelings in a letter to their lost loved one. This took place after the mask activity was discussed and another craft, the quilting together of eight different banners made by each cabin into a flag. The banners represented each child's participation and what the camp experience meant to them.
Every activity, from Friday night until Saturday evening, led up to the final act. Each child was free to release their feelings in a safe place, many they had kept deep inside, about the loved one they had lost. They put their feelings into a letter to their loved one.
Then, they were led down a path, lit with luminaries, to the lake where each child placed his or her letter into a hand-made nest that was then burned.
"It's very intense and emotional," said Finch. Many of the kids then need their counselors to help them work through the emotions that are triggered by the act. And they are encouraged to take all night if they need it to get those feelings out.
Sunday arrived with a fresh new outlook and the participants then prepared to meet their families. Parents and guardians met with Finch for a recap of the weekend's events and instructions on how to keep the communication open when they return home.
"We talked to them about dealing with grief, both children and adult grief," Finch said.
Taylor Stepper was so moved by the second experience that she already made a commitment to return next year as a volunteer.
"I didn't want to come," she said. "But it helped so much because I know everyone is here for me. There's no judging or bullying, like in school where you have to hide everything. Here you don't have to hide anything."
While her pain is still very deep, her father died less than three months before the camp, Taylor felt a sense of release. The Trust Walk, she said, was the most poignant. "I haven't been able to trust anyone," she said.
Losing her father felt like she was drowning, she said.
"I was shaking but I did it," she said. "And afterward I felt like I could finally breathe."
The 2014 Children's Bereavement Camp, in its 21st year, was even more poignant to organizers since this year they mourned the loss of two of their own. Nancy Brown, HPH Hospice Senior Vice President of Clinical Services and Katy Geschke, HPH Hospice Volunteer Program Manager, both passed in 2013. Their families attended this year's camp to pay tribute and help commemorate the selfless contributions to the program.
Geschke's mother, son, and future daughter-in-law said attending the camp was difficult because memories of Katy were everywhere.
"I do it because of my mom," her son said. "Hospice was everything to my mom. She loves these kids and she loved everything this program does for them."
The focus of the camp was to find effective ways to help children deal with their loss in a controlled and constructive way.
"Even with the fun stuff, relate it back to grief," Laura Finch said.
Email Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame at firstname.lastname@example.org.