Camp Erin in Stanwood offers comfort for grieving children

This is part of The Daily Herald’s annual report on charity in Snohomish County. Complete list of stories

STANWOOD — During three days of hiking, swimming, singing, art and talking, organizers hope the truth sinks in for kids at Camp Erin.

They’re not weird. They’re not at fault. They’re not wrong to feel the way they feel.

They’re not alone.

Camp Erin is a free summer camp for children ages 5 to 18 who have lost a loved one.

There are standard activities mixed with special traditions geared toward helping children learn how to cope with grief.

Campers take a hike past signs representing aspects of grief — anger, fear, guilt, sadness — and talk through each. During the luminary ceremony, they light candles for their loved ones and say whatever they feel. On the last day of camp, they release balloons into the sky with a whispered message for the person they lost.

On Sunday, Lisa Rongholt, of Lynnwood, watched the balloons carry those whispers into the heavens. She released one of her own alongside her three sons. Lucas is 11 years old, Layton is 8 and Spencer is 5. The Rongholts lost a loving father and husband a year ago. The brothers attended Camp Erin last weekend.

Lisa Rongholt describes her husband Jeff as a deeply caring person who treasured his family.

“He was the most amazing dad for my boys that I could ever have asked for,” she said. “He was really close to his family. He would do anything for anybody, and not ask for anything in return. He was the love of my life.”

He was diagnosed in April 2015 with colon cancer. He died four months later.

Lisa Rongholt wanted a safe place for her sons to remember their dad and meet other kids who could relate to them.

“I know at school, a lot of the kids don’t understand, so they don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “They don’t want to be singled out.”

Grieving children often feel out of place, said Hannah Herkert, camp coordinator and pediatric bereavement specialist with Providence Hospice. Children who are grieving don’t want to make others sad, so they keep their sorrow locked away, crying only when people aren’t looking or biting back words they want to say.

“One of the most important lessons is that talking about your loss doesn’t make other people sad,” Herkert said. “The loss is sad, but talking about it doesn’t make someone else sad. You have a right to share your grief.”

Counselors and volunteer “big buddies” help campers share their stories. If they’d rather listen, that’s OK, too. Everyone grieves differently.

About 60 adults helped at this year’s camp from Aug. 19 to 21 at Camp Killoqua near Stanwood. There were about 100 campers.

The first Camp Erin was founded in Snohomish County 15 years ago. Now there are 45 camps across the United States and Canada.

Camp Erin was started by the Moyer Foundation and Providence Hospice and Home Care. It’s named for Erin Metcalf. Jamie Moyer, the former Seattle Mariners pitcher, and wife Karen Moyer met Erin when she went to spring training through the Make A Wish program.

Erin was the youngest of three girls. She skied, played softball and basketball, sang in choir and played the French horn. She worked hard in school and would help friends with math homework. She was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer three weeks after she turned 15. She became quiet and despondent for a while, mom Michele Metcalf said.

“We kept trying different things to keep her spirits up,” she said. “I don’t know what it was, but about two months into her illness something triggered and she decided she was going to fight this thing.”

She was told she had three months. She lived two and a half more years.

Erin had a soft spot for younger kids and kept a daily journal of things she was grateful for, Michele Metcalf said.

“We’ll have the loss in our hearts every day,” she said. “And yet there was a blessing behind all of that because in her short 17 years she taught us compassion and wisdom and grace and opened our hearts and our eyes to other people.”

Karen Moyer’s hope for Camp Erin is that “no child has to grieve alone.”

“What we know is that any loss is life-changing, and what can happen to someone if they don’t take care of it, those consequences are very real,” she said.

She wants camps around the country to thrive with community support and become available for any child or teen who needs a haven during grief.

Rongholt is grateful her sons went to Camp Erin. Her oldest shared a camp motto that helped her: “You don’t move on, you live on.” He talked about the grief walk and she realized she was feeling those emotions, too. And when they released balloons, it reminded her that her family isn’t alone.

“Ours weren’t the only balloons,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how many kids were there. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s heartwarming at the same time because they have a place like this.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

Camp Erin

To learn more about donating, attending or volunteering at Camp Erin, go to tinyurl.com/CampErinSnoCo or call Providence Hospice Grief Support Services at 425-261-4807. You can donate to Camp Erin here.

Providence also offers a free year-round monthly support group for children and teens called Standing Together.

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