Kids Find Help at Malibu’s Camp Erin

Kids participate in a yoga session.

Now in its 10th year, a Malibu camp—Camp Erin—is helping children and teenagers navigate the journey to hope and healing following the death of a close loved one.

The camp, which is free and hosts kids from ages six to 17, is located on the grounds of Camp Bloomfield, high in the hills of Malibu. Twice each summer, groups of about 75 kids come for a weekend to unwind from the stresses of school and home and learn coping skills from trained counselors. 

The tragedy of the death of a parent can be so overwhelming to a child that sometimes the child cannot or does not know how to cope. At such a young age, a child may not know how to grieve losing a parent. At school, there may not be any other peers going through the same experience. At home, the remaining parent or siblings, if any, may be too filled with grief themselves to be able to guide a child through the emotionally tough process.

Whether they’ve lost a parent through illness, suicide or even homicide, most kids at the weekend camp are interested in knowing if any other camper has a similar story. They soon find out during the Friday night bonding activity where each camper shares their story in their cabin with kids of the same age group.

Lauren Schnieder, a nationally recognized authority on children’s grief, has participated in 15 camps. 

Meeting other kids with a similar story “gives them that sense that they’re not the only one. They feel less isolated. That feeling is one of the hardest feelings that grieving kids experience—that feeling of isolation. So that’s reduced really quickly after they arrive to camp,” according to Schnieder. 

Another goal is to provide support away from the home where everybody’s grieving. At camp, they get support from trained adults. They can express their thoughts and feelings. The kids also get a break from the sadness at home. 

“We give them a chance to have fun and leave the sadness at home for a weekend with fun and relaxing activities,” Schnieder said. That includes swimming, a DJ dance party and soothing therapy dogs. Self-esteem activities include a ropes course and rock wall to climb. 

“They get to be kids in this beautiful area. Some have never seen the ocean before. Just the drive up to camp is allowing them to be in this beautiful environment—just stars at night. Many live in the city with so much light pollution they don’t know what a starry sky looks like until they get up into the mountains on a clear night,” Schnieder said.

Schnieder described a success story when she recalled a camper who didn’t want to participate upon arrival Friday night. Counselors asked her to at least remove her ear buds so she could be present for the other campers who shared their stories. By Sunday, the camper transformed from an isolated state to becoming the star of the skit her cabin performed at the closing ceremony. 

“By Sunday she was front and center 100 percent,” Schnieder said. “She came up to me when her surviving parent came to pick her up and said, ‘Thank you. It really helped being at camp.’ That was a complete transformation to how closed off she was when she first arrived. That was beautiful to see.”

Camp Erin is named for a late friend of Major League Baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer, who created The Moyer Foundation in Seattle, Wash., that funds the camp and the nonprofit Our House Grief Support with centers in Woodland Hills and West Los Angeles. The centers offer bereavement support in a safe and nurturing environment for all ages.

For the kids at Camp Erin, “We teach them coping strategies for when they leave camp and don’t have a grief specialist to help them. We send them home with a number of different coping strategies to use moving forward,” Schnieder said. And importantly, the campers make new friends so they’re not alone in their grief.

The next session of Camp Erin takes place Aug. 17-19. 

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