Summer camp mends broken hearts

LAKEWOOD — On the first day of camp, Kayla Zilko tacked a photo of her late father to the cabin wall beside her bed.

Then she waited.

A volunteer “cabin buddy” charged with keeping an eye on five younger girls, Kayla, 19, didn’t sit long before one of the new campers asked her about the picture.

“That’s my dad. He died when I was your age,” Kayla explained. “He was a fisherman.”

“My mommy died, too,” the little girl said. Kayla nodded and reached out to offer a hug.

For a week each summer, as it has since 1999, Camp Killoqua becomes Camp Willie, a program designed to help kids ages 7 to 18 who have lost a loved one. Most of the campers have a parent who died.

In its form as Camp Willie, Killoqua attracts about 50 kids from Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties to the 185-acre lakeside Camp Fire USA facility south of Stanwood.

This week, Camp Willie also is a family reunion of sorts, marking the grief camp’s 10th anniversary. Many of the campers are returnees, including volunteers such as Kayla, a 2008 graduate of Stanwood High School, and her sister Colleen Zilko, 16.

Their friends Collin and Kyle McInnis, 20-year-old twins from Mount Vernon, have spent a week at Camp Willie every summer since its inception. Even though they are college students, the McInnis brothers don’t plan to miss their annual visit.

“There have been tough times over the years with depression and anger,” Collin McInnes said. “But when we got to camp everything always completely changed. Kids can be themselves here.”

Camp Willie is named for the mother of 52-year-old Mica Hartley, the camp’s program director.

Hartley — lovingly known at camp as “Magic” — was 16 when her mother committed suicide.

It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that Hartley realized she had never cried about her mom. She went back to college to earn a graduate degree in psychology and became a therapist.

“I realized I had deep wounds, and I wondered if there would be a way to help grieving children avoid this adult turmoil,” Hartley said.

In 1999, she and longtime Camp Killoqua director Carol Johnson came up with the idea for Camp Willie, and opened the compassionate camp for about 20 kids.

Bereavement counselors joined camp activities coordinators to provide a week of fun and healing.

Grief is hard work, Hartley said, and it can be hard on the camp staff, too.

“Some of these kids have lost (a parent, and the surviving parent) is deep into their own grief, or the kid ends up in foster care,” Hartley said. “Sometimes there is no one to take care of them. They are very broken. It can be very sad.”

Each day at camp includes a support group meeting. Ceremonies during which the children and teens can talk about their deceased loved ones are always well attended. An annual group art project reminds the campers that they need each other, Hartley said.

What’s best about Camp Willie, though, is that there’s just time to hang out, Kyle McInnis said.

A guitarist, McInnis likes to sit outside the camp lodge waiting for some of the newer campers to join him.

“Music is a great little icebreaker. Often, we get into a deep conversation pretty quickly,” he said. “Some of the new kids have to prove themselves like they do at school. Like, ‘My dad’s dead, but I’m OK,’ but the sooner they get around that, the better time they have. It’s safe here.”

Without the camp, many of the boys might be lost, said another longtime camper and volunteer cabin buddy Devin Cooper, 19, of Deming.

“Camp has helped us evolve into who we are,” he said. “We’ve learned to deal with our anger.”

Hartley agrees. She’s watched many of the campers go through the grieving process again and again during each stage of childhood development.

“The losses aren’t going to stop coming. They come to realize that in a healthy way,” she said. “Maybe their parent won’t be there for their high school graduation, but they’re going to be OK.”

Having the older cabin buddies around helps prove that, she said.

Dillon Kushner, 11, of Marysville, and his siblings have attended Camp Willie at Camp Killoqua for several years after the death of their father. Someday he’ll be one of the older volunteer counselors, the cabin buddies, he said.

“Camp is the best thing. It can’t get any better. I’m never bored,” Dillon said. “Sometimes camp is sad, but it helps a lot to share our stories.”

That’s what it’s all about, Kayla said.

In high school, she never talked about her dad’s death.

“I would hold it in all year until I got to camp,” Kayla said. “This is my favorite place in the whole world.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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