Kids play a parachute game at Camp Mighty Oaks, a camp for families who have lost loved ones. (Willamette Valley Hospice)

Melissa Lindley has run into people that attended Camp Mighty Oaks – a grief camp for families with children that have lost a loved one – 10 years ago and still remember it fondly. 

One interaction stuck with her.

Lindley said, “I’ll never forget these two little girls that came up to me. I was at a health fair that happened to be at their school. And they remembered me and they came up and said ‘hi’ and their mom, she got teary and she’s like ‘thank you so much again. The girls, before school started, said they wished they could go to a school where all the kids from Camp Mighty Oaks went.’

“That’s how powerful it was to them.”

Lindley, a community outreach coordinator for Willamette Valley Hospice, said the camp gives children the opportunity to be around others who understand, because they’re also experiencing a loss.

“It’s not a common experience to be a child and have the loss of someone really close to you,” Lindley said. “It happens for sure, but it isn’t something that you feel like ‘oh yeah four of my friends in my class also lost their dad this year.’”

The all-day event – which is for families with children aged 6 and older that have lost a loved one in the past two years – splits families into age groups and gives them different activities.

Bereavement counselor Nancy Wilms said after a loss people feel powerless, so during camp they’ll do an exercise with kids that are 6 to 8 years old.

They have them stand on a little stool about four inches high and ask them to imagine what animal makes them think of feeling powerful.

“If it’s a lion, then they get to roar like a lion. And then they jump off with power and they land and they’re okay,” Wilms said. “With kids you’re doing this play therapy and for them its play, but they’re really learning something.”

The exercises help children learn how to cope, she said.

 “I absolutely think that this is a foundation that we give young children… about how to deal with grief and loss,” Wilms said. “The tools that we give these kids, they’re profound.”

Those tools have expanded in the digital age, according to Wilms.

“But also with technology things have changed, too. Where we can refer people to chat forums on grief and loss. Instagram accounts or Facebook accounts of authors that write books, and they want to keep people involved,” she said.

Kids play a parachute game at Camp Mighty Oaks, a camp for families who have lost loved ones. (Willamette Valley Hospice)

Organizers insist that it’s not all morose.

Bereavement counselor Jan Dupont said there’s pet therapy and a wildly-popular button-making machine.

Families leave the camp feeling more connected and better equipped to handle their grief, Dupont said.

The camp is open to anyone, not just those who’ve dealt with hospice. Lindley said other hospitals will refer their clients to the camp, or to a 7-week support group that starts in the fall.

“It’s really nice for us to be able to support the community in that way and provide a service that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Lindley said.

Camp Mighty Oaks takes place on July 13 from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Oregon 4-H Center on 5390 4-H Road N.W. Children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The camp costs $20 per person, but there are scholarships available. The registration deadline in June 21.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.

LOCAL NEWS AND A LOCAL SUBSCRIPTION -- For $10 a month, Salem Reporter provides breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news. Help us grow and get better by subscribing today. Sign up HERE