Tony and the other 33 children attending Camp Comfort share a common bond: the death of a loved one. Eight-year-old Anissa's 9-year-old brother Nathan drowned in the bathtub last year after suffering a seizure. Ashley, 13, and Emily, 8, lost both parents in 1998, when their father shot their mother and then turned the gun on himself.
Tough stuff to deal with at any age, but camp founder Lynne Hughes wants to help children give voice to their grief. "These kids feel isolated," says Hughes, 37. "We offer them a community of kids who have been through what they've been through and people who want to help."
Since Camp Comfort opened in May 1999, Hughes and her volunteer staff (including five therapists plus about 30 Big Buddies, many of whom, as children, also experienced the death of a loved one) have worked with 250 kids, ages 6 to 18. Through fund-raisers and corporate donations Hughes raises the money—upward of $50,000—that it costs annually to rent camp space and buy incidentals so that bereaved youngsters can attend one of several 3-to-5-day sessions given each year for free.
While they spend some of the time just being children—swimming, singing campfire songs, roasting marshmallows—they concentrate on activities designed to help them deal with their loss. In one Camp Comfort ritual, the kids write notes to their departed loved ones, attach them to balloons and fling them toward the sky. "Dear Mom," reads one, "Have you met God yet?" But they seem to benefit most from the "healing circles," gatherings where they share their pain with counselors and peers. Sitting in a cabin while a ceiling fan squeaks overhead, Ashley holds up a photo of her parents and tells the group, "My dad committed suicide after killing my mom." Carlos Cooper, 13, whose father died of liver failure in August 1996, offers his support. "I don't know how you do it, Ashley," he says. "I don't think I could be that strong."
Looking back, Hughes, who grew up in Rochester, Mich., still has difficulty understanding how she, at age 9, survived the loss of her own mother. Marilynn Barribeau, a homemaker, died of a blood clot in her lung at age 44. Not quite three years later, Hughes's salesman father Louis, 45, suffered a fatal heart attack. Lynne and her brothers—Marc, now 41, Matt, 38, and Danny, 33—were shuffled among a stepmother, grandparents and an aunt and uncle. "I slept with the light on until I was 12," recalls Hughes.
After graduating from Michigan State University in 1986, she helped found Motherless Daughters, a national support organization, in 1995. In 1998 she decided to open a bereavement camp. "I was the first skeptic," admits her husband, Kelly, 38, a salesman. That changed in May 1999, when their son Evan was born. "It was the realization that I may not be there for Evan one day," he says. "I knew Camp Comfort was exactly what we should be doing."
Tony's Big Buddy, Mark Stepanian, can attest to that. On Sunday, after the final healing circle, Stepanian, 30, a Richmond, Va., beer distributor, talks about his charge. "Tony wouldn't say two words when he first got here," he says. "I didn't know if he wanted to go fishing or play in traffic. But now he's smiling more, talking more."
Even better, he's acting like a kid. "I'm coming back," says Tony, as he chases a frog with a stick. "I'm having a great time."
J. Todd Foster in Goochland