Experience Camps
Podcast #118 — Aired January 16, 2017

“It’s the best week of the year!” That’s what kids say after attending Experience Camps, a week long camp for kids who have lost a close loved one. The week on BetterWorldians Radio we’re speaking with Experience Camps founder Sara Deren. She’ll discuss how the idea for Experience Camps was formed and how it’s brightening the lives of young people living with grief.

 

 

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Sara Deren
Founder, Experience Camps

Sara Deren is the founder and Executive Director of Experience Camps. Sara received her MBA from Columbia University and spent 12 years in the financial services industry before turning her full attention to camp. Experience Camps was founded on Sara’s, and her husband, Jon’s, desire to provide the camp experience to children who would not otherwise have that opportunity. She now uses her business background and love of camp to develop and operate Experience Camps, and to ensure that our campers enjoy the best that summer camp has to offer.

Episode Transcript

Gregory Hansell
Hi, welcome to BetterWorldians radio. BetterWorldians radios is a weekly podcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. I am Ray Hansell joined today by my co-host Mary Sue Hansell. BetterWorldians radio is brought to you by BetterWorldians foundations and it is co-hosted by the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called A Better World. If rewards players for doing good deeds while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. Today over 40,000 million good deeds have been done in a Better World by more than 4 million people in over 100 countries. This week on BetterWorldians radio we welcome Sara Deren, founder and Executive Director of Experience Camps. A non-profit camp for boys and girls that offer support and joy to kids whose loved ones have died. Sara received her MBA from Columbia University and spent 12 years in the financial services Industry before turning her full attention to the camp. Experience Camps was founded on Sara's and her husband John's desire to provide camp experience to children who would not otherwise have that opportunity. She now uses her business background and love of camp to develop and operate Experience Camps and to ensure that our campers enjoy their very best summer camp they've ever had. Hi Sara. Thanks for joining us today on BetterWorldians radio.

Sara Deren
Hello. Thanks so much for having me.

Raymond Hansell
Well, you are very very welcome. This is an inspiring story. We can't wait to get into it. What inspired you to start Experience Camps?

Sara
Well, so my husband and I owned For a Profit, a regular summer camp in Maine and we really had the opportunity to observe the amazing effects of summer camp on children. I think anybody that has been to summer camp- most people would agree that its one of those life changing opportunities, the thing that really can define a childhood, define your character as you are developing and what we wanted to do was give that opportunity to kids who otherwise weren't having that opportunity. We are having that experience. We develop the foundation and just sort of by chance around the time we were starting the foundation, a girls camp in Maine, that was running a briefing program reached out to us. We were an all-boys camp and they actively would do a brother program. Part of it was by just the desire to do something good in the world and part of it was, somehow by chance that they reached out at the right time and really influenced the choice of mission that we chose to move forward with.

Raymond Hansell
Hmm. Thats very interesting. So many happened. That way we've had so many different cases to tell as a story is that, this is by just by circumstance, by coincidence, by synchronicity these things happen. Tell our listeners exactly what Experience Camp offers the campers?

Sara
Experience camps are free one week camps for boys and girls who have experienced a significant death or loss. Its usually a parent or sibling, it can be a primary caregiver or even just a significant member of the family who is a sibling or parent like figure in the child's life. What it provides them is, its a week of camp mostly. I mean, its a very traditional type of summer camp experience with games and elective instructional and [00:03:50] dancing and silliness and games. Throughout it all is, so this underlying thread of common understanding between campers, that they all know that they are there for the same reason. I think one of the biggest factors and biggest components of our program is giving the kids an opportunity to be with other kids who get it. That's the first thing that happens even before we do any of the bereavement activities or have a sharing circle or do some other sort of more bereavement and clinically informed pieces of the program. Its just that they are there next to each other and they dont have to explain anything if they dont want to. Yet they know that everybody around them gets it and everybody around them has been through something similar if not, obviously, everybody has their own story and their own circumstances but they are similar enough. They can recognize more about whats the same between them than whats different. That's I think the really special and unique thing about being at camp and also being in a program and a camp program where everybody has experience something similar that most kids in their lives have not.

Raymond Hansell
Do they share these experiences that sort of underlie their loss or is there an opportunity to do so?

Sara
They do. They do and thats the big component of it as well. Giving them the opportunity and the tools even, to share their memories, share their stories. The first full day of camp is the first time that the campers sit down together with their bunks and one of our clinicians. Each bunk has a licensed clinician assigned to it that really helps facilitate this peer support that our philosophy is based on. They go around in a circle and they just have the opportunity to share their story. They dont have to. Some will pass. Many will say a little bit. Some will say a lot. Again, its just that understanding that and this is really the first time that they hear it from each other, that oh the kid next to me, his mom died too or oh my gosh! There is somebody else in this bunk who lost somebody to suicide which nobody likes to talk about, because that's got this stigma associated with it. Its providing them the opportunity not only to tell their story but to hear other kids stories. That really becomes the foundation of the bonds that they develop. Not only that week that they are at camp but all of the future weeks that they come back in other summers because we do encourage them to come back and grow with the program and what their own childhood and adolescent development to go through the different stages of their journey with us as a support with Experience Camps and with the peers that they need at camp.

Raymond Hansell
What are the typical age ranges of the children who attend the camp?

Sara
With those kids age is 9-16. As I said, they come back each year so, our hope is that they'll continue, you know they'll start young and come back. As they grow up in the program, they become leaders of camp. We actually just had the last couple of years our first classes of junior counselors. Those are kids that started with the camp as campers, grew up, went through our counselling training program and then came back to actually be volunteers. Now we are seeing the culture of the program, developed by the campers themselves and they are coming back to give back to other kids who have been in similar circumstances or going through similar things that they can relate to in a way that a lot of other people cant. Thats been a really special aspect of the program as we've grown because we have the opportunity to really bring the campers into a new phase of their journey by giving back as counselors as well.

Raymond Hansell
Can you share with us some of the unique challenges that these young people have, who have lost someone close to them?

Sara
Oh. Its numerous. It depends on the kid of course. I would say one of them as I mentioned earlier is just feeling alone and feeling like people dont understand what they are going through. I think thats the most common thing that we hear from kids. Whether it be that they dont know any other kids at home who have lost a parent or sibling. Or that they dont know how to talk to their own parent, surviving parent about it or they dont want to burden their family members with their own grief because they are also grieving. I think the emotional piece of it obviously is a big part of their challenges and then there's also different situations where theres multiple losses.

Raymond Hansell
Oh.

Sara
Whether that be multiple losses of people or multiple losses of a parent or caregiver dies and the family has to move to a new house. Or you know, mom have to go back to work so their primary caregiver changes the dynamic of the family and they have to make new friends or different things like that. I think there's a lot of challenges on that side as well. It just changes their whole way of being. What they knew to be safe and secure as children which is how you want children to feel as children and it sort of takes away that wealth of security for them, in a lot of different ways.

Raymond Hansell
Can you share with me how long you've been doing this camp?

Sara
Sure. We started in 2009 at the camp I mentioned in Maine. We had 27 campers the first year and 30 very enthusiastic volunteers. We had a pretty high ratio and we have maintained at a high ratio, maybe not that high over the years as we've expanded. We opened a program in California in 2014 followed by New York and this coming summer we are going to be opening a fourth location in Georgia. Each one has been around for varying numbers of years but Maine has been our longest running program because we started there.

Raymond Hansell
The reason I ask you is because I was wondering if some of these children who've moved on, past the camping stage have maintained contacts with fellow campers outside of camp or after their camping years are finished?

Sara
Yeah, now thats a great question. The answer at this point is yes. As I mentioned we have a couple of graduating classes at this point. The first class I believe of that 27 that I mentioned from 2009, I believe 18 of them came back as junior counsellors. A pretty great- you know over those 8 years- 7 years those are pretty great return ratio and they have stayed involved and they had stayed very connected to each other. You can really see that when they come back to camp each summer. Even though they might not talk all year long, particularly the boys who dont necessarily stay in touch, have as much communication throughout the year. They get back to camp and its like they saw each other yesterday. They refer to each other as brothers and sisters and family. Its a different kind of relationship in many cases and just what they have with their best friends at home. Theres a deeper bond there that connects them in a way that is unlike what any of them experience anywhere else.

Raymond Hansell
We've had that happen in some of the other charities that we've worked with. Particularly a group that sponsors High School programs with work study, where the actual children are involved in work study outside of the cooperation or a company and then the work study supervisor maintains a relationship well beyond- not only their high school years but even beyond their college years. Theres just a relationship that mentors at mentoring relationship and I would suppose that this has some of the same aspects to it. The qualities of having that deep experience there, carry on-- I wouldn't be surprised if this carries on for them even after they've gone beyond their teenage years to people that form relationship or at least stay in touch. That support group could be invaluable.

Sara
Yeah and thats our hope. Thats why we really have developed a pretty significant leadership program because of that. Because we recognize that theres a lot we can do for them as they are developing. As they go from being, lets say a nine-year old camper to a 12-year old camper to a 16-year camper. But then after that point theres a lot of really monumental milestones that begin to happen in their lives which are made even more relevant by potentially the absence of somebody that would normally be pretty pivotal in those decisions and milestones. We do want to make sure that they are supported throughout all of those. You know, whether its leaving High School, going to college or any other type of program and then carrying into their young adulthood. You really want to have positive influences at that point in their lives because so many good or bad decisions can happen at that point when you are not supported or when you are supported properly. They develop great relationships. Especially as they get older and fall more into that mentorship role with some of our volunteers who are there to support them at camp but then, as they get older and we can have more of an year-round relationship with them, pass the age of 18 and they can have more of a friendship and mentorship relationship, they become really important. The volunteers become very important in their lives and in some of those decisions. It also, like you said establishes that connection. Not only to the volunteers but to each other. Because they really become to rely on that support and by that point comes to really associate the support of their peers and volunteers at Experience Camp with the hard times and the good times. They look to us in those moments, which is a really nice thing. I am glad that we are able to be there for them when they need that. When they just, you know are just going through their regular life stuff.

Raymond Hansell
Well, we are glad that you are there for them as well. This is a wonderful work that you are doing. We'll talk more in a few minutes with you about that experience but right now, I'd like to just take a very brief break and tell our listeners a bit about our game on Facebook called the Better World. A Better World encourages habits of goodness, positive mindsets and giving to social causes to make a positive difference in the world. Our players actually do things like express gratitude, share random acts of kindness and send get well notes to real world sick children and so many more. Each month, A Better World partners with a different nonprofit to help raise money and awareness for its cause. This month we are happy to partner with nurturing minds in Africa. When our players complete 150,000 good deeds in the game, which I am sure they will we will release funds to provide quality education for over 200 vulnerable girls in Tanzania. You can find out more at betterworld.com and now let me return now to our show and our co-host Mary Sue Hansell.

MarySue Hansell
Now we'd like to welcome Todd Crawford to Better World Youth radio. Tod's sons, Davis and Evan attended Experience Camps after the loss of their mother Lisa. Todd, welcome to Better Worldians radio.

Todd
Hi, thank you and glad to be here.

MarySue Hansell
Glad to have you, now did your kids become involved with Experience Camps?

Todd
In March of 2015 my wife, Lisa Colagrossi who was a very well-known television journalist for ABC news died on an [00:15:20]  from a brain aneurysm.

MarySue Hansell
I am sorry.

Todd
Very unexpectedly and the weeks and months that followed we had a number of people from all over the country and the world reach out to us and one of those people was a fellow colleague of Lisa's at ABC news from Good Morning America, who had a connection to Sara and Experienced Camps, made the introduction and I looked at it, did some research. Met with Sara and over a cup of coffee to just better understand what the Experience Camps was and how it would benefit the boys, you know if they grasp this kind of history as they say [00:16:07]

MarySue Hansell
How did the boys like their experience there?

Todd
Well, I think the boys love it. Well I know they love it because what Experience Camps offers them is a one week escape from reality.

MarySue Hansell
Oh, okay.

Todd
You know from all the trauma and the grief and the heartbreak from the tragedy of losing their mom. Experience Camps is the one we got in the year where all these children from across the country come together and descend upon Maine because of like circumstances, either the loss of one parent or both parents in some cases or a sibling. The boys can relate to that so its the one week out of the year that they can escape from reality and they come home and they just say, I had the most awesome time in the past week of my life.

MarySue Hansell
Oh, that will you feel really good. Now, Todd what was it like for you as a father to have your children be able to take advantage of this great opportunity?

Todd
Well, it was a big relief. Because again as the world and a lot of things are thrown on your shoulders instantly and you become the only parent of a single-family household and theres a lot that comes along with that. One of the most important thing is that, front of mind is the wellbeing and the care of the two boys, your children and how are they coping. Going to cope with this loss. It was trouble enough for me to cope with it. How are two boys who were then 10 and 14 going to manage to cope with the grief and loss of their mother and so it was a real godsend to have the experience offered to us and to sit down with Sara and talk and understand it a lot better and what it was going to offer the boys and provide to them. It was extremely helpful and it was a very very special experience that I would recommend to anybody.

MarySue Hansell
Fabulous. You know, I also wanted to briefly mention that you've started a nonprofit in your wife's memory. Can you tell our listeners a bit about that?

Todd
Sure, so the organization is the Lisa  Colagrossi Foundation for Brain aneurysm's. It was started a few months after Lisa's passing in March of 2015. We are quickly emerging as the most trusted source and leader in the fight against brain aneurysm's. One of our top priorities and focus is to generate awareness and education among the general public or what are brain aneurysm's, what are some of the signs and symptoms that you may experience if you have a brain aneurysm. Some of the risk factors, which has never been done before. We are leading the way and creating awareness and education initially among the general public. We will very shortly be crafting programs and platforms that target the medical community as well. Thankfully because of our efforts we've already been credited with saving a number of lives around the world and people who saw one of our awareness or education programs and initiatives and it resonated with them and they recognized that they were experiencing one of the classic warning signs of a potential brain aneurysm. When they were diagnosed, and treated successfully and are now still alive and the families are intact. That's what its all about. Helping others and just trying to make a positive difference in the world and turning our personal tragedy into a positive one for others.

MarySue Hansell
Can you tell our listeners how they can find out about the website if they wanted to?

Todd
Sure. The website is tlcbound.org. We are on twitter with the handle @tlcbound and Facebook page is Lisa Colagrossi foundation.

MarySue Hansell
Well, thank you. I wanted to ask you, one last question. Why would you encourage our listeners to support the Experience Camps? I mean, by donating and volunteering. Why do you think its so important?

Todd
Well, its an experience first of all that I think, first and foremost that the children- Its all about children and for children. That children who go through something very traumatic, that they experience a great loss in their lives that they need and again, something that they can helps them escape for one week. Their activities at the camp that Sara and her group do that, to help the children cope with the loss and their drastic grief that they are experiencing firsthand and then say, its a program that had through people who donated is totally funded by private donations. Her mother is around the country so the children who attend a 10-free charge which is really something that families who maybe in a difficult financial experience. They dont need to worry about that. You got enough to worry about with the loss of the spouse or loved one that they are already dealing with. They dont need to worry about how am I going to send my child to Experience Camps and I can assure that the children are in the most capable and the best hands that they could be in, when with Sara and her staff, that one week and it takes a lot of the shoulders of me as a parent and others as well. It is an absolute terrific experience and I highly recommend it.

MarySue Hansell
I'd like to welcome back Sara. Now, Sara what do you hope campers come away with after their experience here at the camp?

Sara
I think our biggest goal is to make them know that they are not alone. That what they are feeling is normal. I think thats one of the biggest concepts that we really try to emphasize at the camp is that, the kids come and they are uncertain of the feelings that they are even having, let alone whether they are okay to have them. Because they dont know other kids that are experiencing something like they are. Whether they feel happy or sad or happy and sad at the same time, or all these various emotions that can come up grief, bereavement and just in life, we want them to know that its okay and then its normal. By normalizing what they are feeling, it takes away the isolation that they feel which can lead to some really negative things in life when you feel that way for a long time. We just want them to know that they are supported, that they are loved and now what they are feeling is okay. That they can express that and they have a place to share it and feel safe in doing so.

MarySue Hansell
What kind of feedback do you get from campers? Now we just talked to Todd Crawford about his sons, Davis and Evan. Can you recall a kind of feedback you got when they attended the camp?

Sara
Sure. I mean, overall, we hear a lot of "best week of the year", which is a really nice to hear exactly. Its a kind of a mantra that we've taken on because it really is for all of us. For the volunteers, for the campers. For everyone involved. Its something we all look forward to throughout the year. I think thats a really strong message and really sums up a lot of the individual feedback comments we get. But a lot of kids will tell us that it's where they are feeling their best and they are most open. It's where they can connect maybe to the person who died in a way that they are not able to as clearly when they are home and when they are in their school routine and their year around routine and the family routine. The campers tell us that like I said, they feel less alone. They feel supported, they feel this brotherhood and sisterhood with the friends that they make there. Then the other part thats really nice is we hear a lot of feedback from the parents and caregivers once the campers get back. They tell us, my shy and sensitive child who I was so worried about came back and said, I cant wait to go back. Or he is standing a little bit taller or she is talking about her dad and she never has before. All of those kind of combined sound bites of information are telling us that it's working and thats really what we want the kids to come away with. Its that feeling of I cant wait to go back because it's telling us that its something that they feel good about and they feel safe there and it's doing something positive for them.

MarySue Hansell
Well, that sounds so good Sara. How can people get involved with Experience Camps?

Sara
Well, the first thing to do is go to our website. Which is experience.camp and on there you will see whether its somebody who wants to apply as being a camper. Theres that application right online. The other way to get involved is as a volunteer which we always welcome the do-gooders of the world who care about children and whether they have experience their own losses as a child, as an adult or not, its people who want to come and make a difference in a childs life. Part of being a volunteer is really just being a counsellor. Being there for the kids in a way that gives them all of their attention for a whole week. Whether you are a grieving child or not, thats something thats fairly rare of in your normal life. For you just have all of somebodys attention. You are getting so much of just playtime and positive attention and its just a really rewarding thing for obviously the campers but also for the volunteers to really take so much pride in the experience that they have and that they are able to provide for the campers. Thats definitely the thing I would recommend for anybody thats interested in this area of work or just doing something amazing, with the week of vacation that they have. It will give you as much as you give it if not more.

MarySue Hansell
It sounds like a really worthwhile thing to do. How about for campers? How could they apply or parents apply for the children that may want to go to the camp?

Sara
All they need to do is go on to the website, experience.camp and theres an apply for camp button right on the homepage. Its a quick application and then one of our clinicians would reach out and schedule sometime to chat and we take it from there. Its a pretty simple process. Again, as long as they meet the criteria of the age range and having experience with significant loss, its a pretty simple process.

MarySue Hansell
Okay. Now heres my last question for you today Sara. How do you hope Experience Camps is helping to make the world a better place?

Sara
Well, I think whether its about grief or anything else, my hope is that this camp and others like it are teaching kids and are teaching adults that there is something we can find in each other always thats more similar than different. In our case, its that, everybody there has experienced a significant loss and that brings them together and that creates these really deep bonds and it carries through with other things they do and they get so much value out of paying that forward and giving back. Giving the support that they receive to the next camper who comes in and needs that kind of support. My hope is that, that carries forward into other parts of their life where they can see, when they meet somebody who looks different than them or is in a different situation or different demographic that they can recognize the similarities or at least know that theres probably something they have in common that they will recognize before they just go right to whatever makes them most obviously different. My hope is that it brings people together, whether its through their grief or through anything else that makes some the same or similar or connect them.

Raymond Hansell
Well you are certainly doing the world a lot of good and we appreciate that you are certainly one of the people that we would consider better [00:29:03] so we appreciate all the work that you are doing. You can learn more experience camps by going to Experience Camp. Sara, thank you so much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Sara
Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me and sharing our message and doing good in the world.

Raymond Hansell
You are very very welcome. BetterWorldians Radio is brought to you by better worldians foundation. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to make the world a better place. By encouraging the very best in everyone. We believe its important to plant flowers. More important to plant flowers is it is to pull weeds. We focus on positive thinking, positive values and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the better worldian in everybody. So that we can all make it a better world. But we cant do it completely without your help. Donations support at better worldians radio podcast as well as go towards developing new features like articles, videos, blogs and more. Go to betterworldians.com and become a part of the support mission and until next time, everyone: be a better worldian. [Music]