Camp teaches families it's OK to grieve and remember


Olivia Monk, 12, swings over water in a trust activity called the nitro pit during the 2nd Annual Camp Safe Have Family Camp, at Camp Kulaqua, in High Springs on Sunday. The challenges of the low elements course at the camp help the participants manage the challenges of dealing with the emotional and physical reactions to grief and loss.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 6:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 6:22 p.m.

For 7-year-old Jamalian Drake, Sunday at Camp Kulaqua marked a different kind of summer camp.

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Haven Hospice will hold an overnight Teen Camp Oct. 11-13 at Camp Immokalee in Keystone Heights. For more information, contact Vonceil Levine at 1-800-HOSPICE or visit www.havenhospice.org

There were plenty of crayons and paints, bubbles and a beach ball, and a visit to the on-site zoo, but his mission was not just to have fun. It was to honor and remember his mother, Simone, who died about a year ago, and to learn that it’s OK to mourn her loss.

True to its name, “Camp Safe Haven,” sponsored by Haven Hospice, provides several bereavement camps for children, teenagers and families throughout the summer, and on Sunday, about 50 people gathered for Family Camp. Many were children.

“For children, it helps validate that they’re not alone,” said Irene Wainwright, the manager of psychosocial and bereavement services at Hospice.

“We get a fair number of kids who don’t think it’s OK to bring up (the deceased’s) name,” Wainwright continued, adding that the camp’s various activities to memorialize the loved one empower the kids.

Apart from playing games and doing artistic activities, they talk about issues such as what people back at work or school say after the death of a loved one, and what society thinks about death and how that makes them feel.

“There’s a sense of release when they leave,” she said.

Accompanying many of the children were the grandparents who are raising grandkids following the death of the grandchild’s parents. Jamalian, of Hawthorne, came with his grandparents-turned-parents.

“I feel like I’m starting all over again,” said Archie Harris, 47, Jamalian’s grandfather.

Harris’ youngest son is 22, and Jamalian is the only child in the house now.

Harris said he came on Sunday so Jamalian could participate in the activities and meet other children.

“He’s doing great,” Harris said. “Sometimes he does better than me and my wife.”

For Irease Harris, losing her daughter Simone last August — less than a month shy of Simone’s 25th birthday — has been very hard.

“I try to deal with my grief on my own. I go into my daughter’s room, and I feel her presence. I go through her clothes,” Irease Harris said.

“We were best friends. I was a protective mom, and during her sickness I couldn’t leave her out of my sight.”

Irease Harris is the person who made her daughter go to the doctor, after Simone asked her mom to check out the lump that Simone had found in her own breast — which ended up being an 11-centimeter tumor.

“She took it like a pro,” she said. “She was more concerned about me.”

She recalled the day they found out Simone’s condition was incurable.

“It was hard on both of us. We cried,” Irease Harris said, adding that even on that day, “She was always thinking about keeping me up. ‘Mom, do you want to get some yogurt ice cream?’ she said.’ ”

Harris asked her daughter if she was afraid to die, and she said, “ ‘No, but I want you to take care of my son,’ ” she continued.

Simone finished her Bachelor of Arts degree online while she was sick, and her parents have her diploma and tassel hanging up in their home; they have a wooden plaque that says “Simone’s garden” in their garden, with a headstone for their daughter.

Irease Harris did another Hospice-sponsored bereavement retreat shortly after her daughter died last August, but she said it was too soon after the death.

This time, she feels more ready to engage with other people. “I’m just here, smiling,” she said.

Her husband added that they’ve done walks to support cancer research as well, but haven’t had as much of an opportunity to co-mingle with other grievers at those.

“Hospice is kind of a middleman bringing people together,” he said.

That’s indeed part of the mission of Vonceil Levine, Hospice’s bereavement counselor who runs the camps.

“Today is about giving families an opportunity to heal and know they’re not alone,” said Levine, who is also a clinical social worker who has worked with grieving families for more than 20 years.

“Our society doesn’t give permission to grieve, so we hope to change the culture,” Levine said, adding, “Death is a part of life, and loss can happen to anyone.”

“It takes courage to be here.”

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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