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Military

Grief Camp In Julian Helps Kids 'Feel Normal Again'

Katie Schoolov
Elliot Kim and Ty Barrion play a game with Elliot's name tag, July 25, 2016.

Nonprofit holds campouts for children who've lost parents in the military

Grief Camp In Julian Helps Kids 'Feel Normal Again'
Grief Camp In Julian Helps Kids ‘Feel Normal Again’
Grief Camp In Julian Helps Kids 'Feel Normal Again' GUEST:Jonathan Kirkendall, clinical director, TAPS Good Grief Camps

More than 12,000 American military personnel have died since the Iraq war started 2003. A nonprofit called tragedy assistance program for survivors or TAPS works with the families left behind. They hold camps for kids that loss parents in the military. Elliot Kim is eight years old and is at camp for the first time. Is with his parents friend type Oregon and is looking forward to trying it climbing. Later they play a game with Elliot's name tag. Are you ready? Concentrating. On that name tag is a picture of Elliot's father Scott Kim or go he was in the Coast Guard and drowned two years ago. He says Elliott wanted to be just like his dad. I don't want to feel -- fill the void of Scott. At least help create the memories for Elliot when he grows up. That is one of the goals of the campouts. They are part will be skills in part having fun. To ensure that the kids understand that what happened in their life is an event in their life, but it is not a defining moment in the life. In their something that they can be aware about. Makes me feel like part of the community more. Because not many people in my school have lost their dads and moms. Elliott in all the campers in a mentor who is also in the military. We are really close friends and we all love each other. That's why he gives me piggyback rights. A 12-year-old husband took several campouts after her father died while fighting in Afghanistan five years ago. She says that they connect kids who understand each other. I feel like it helps them remember and the life and the love they had with that person, and celebrate it rather than being more depressed over it. They do crafts to remember their parents or have group discussions. Some questions are easier such as what was their father spirit, and others are harder purposely dollars question I feel like is how I learned he died. That's hard for me to say but in the end it feels good. Suruc after the group time, Gonzalez hit the climbing wall and she was a bit nervous but tackled it with coaching from her mentor. About 40 kids were at the three-day camp. Be height, made crafts, and swam in the pool. ASHLIN was a camper for eight years and now works for TAPS. When she was growing up, should not know anyone who lost a parent purchased everything that TAPS did normalized what I was going through and made me feel like it was okay I miss my father still. Even five years out I still cried and still dreaded the anniversary of his death and his birthdays were so hard and to know that other kids were going to the also made it so much easier. Those camp friends then supported her during the year. She said she loves seeing new campers start having fun. It is okay for them to not want to cry. It is okay for them to have fun and enjoy this time together. It doesn't have to all be tears and depressing, which is what so many people think grief camp is. Elliott Bari on invented another game, using pool noodles like baseball bats to hit tennis balls. They splashed and laughed and got other kids to play also. Split Jamie now is Jonathan Kirkendall director of the tragedy assistance program for survivors or TAPS Good Grief Camp's. Welcome to the program. Thank you so much. We like to follow-up on a few of the points made that the idea that kids can Lathop at these Captain have an escape from their loss.'s that one of the major aims of Good Grief Camp quite In a sense, yes. I would not say that they can play and laugh to escape the loss but I would say that they can play and laugh through the loss. That is actually part of the healing that occurs. We heard that all the kids who attend the TAPS camp get a mentor from the military. Why is that? Point we began using mentors , I believe, in 1996. They were Air Force honor guards. It was a big experiment. We had no idea how it would go. As a turnout, it was fabulous. Both the children and the mentors benefited greatly from this relationship. I think that clinically speaking one of the things we know is that healing always occurs in relationships. When these kids have these military mentors, by their side, pretty much 24/7 during these camps, there is a lot of healing that occurs for the kids in What Walter the mentors play? What we like to say is that mentors companion the children. When a mentor is not -- we say to them you are not pushing the kid and you are not pulling the kid. You are walking by his or her side during their journey of grief. So it is about the, -- accompany the child. In a group, for example, if a child is too shy to talk, they might want to whisper what they want to share in the mentors here in the mentor can see it for them. Or frankly if a child is feeling like they don't want to be part of the group, the mentor just sits with them either under table or off to the side. What we say to the kids is there is only one will and one thing that you have to do while you are here and that is don't lose her mentor. So the mentor really just days by their side the entire time. One of the children in the future said that they don't know many other kids love lost a mom or dad. Does that lost 10 to isolate these children? Yes. I am saying that now. I met another camp and I met with the moms this morning. One other things they tell me is that the kids come home and this is especially true for teens who look to their peer group for acceptance and confirmation of their self esteem and self image. One other things that we hear especially from moms of teens is that there teen does not know anybody else who has lost a mom or dad in this manner. It is very isolating for them frequently they will complained that they just don't know anybody else like them or that their friends so understand. So KVM together -- so getting the together will give them a chance to meet other kids what do similar things. Does the community feeling that you are describing that children get from grief camp is that last beyond grief camp expect well, many of our mentor stay in touch with their kids because we use military mentors and many of them are in active duty, sometimes they can't stay in touch because of deployments. We have mentors who return event after event. I believe that there is a mentor who follows Elliot and tries to meet him as many events as they can. So there is that relationship between the mentor in the camper. Also when the campers arrive, they see things that they've seen it other TAPS events. So we tried to have events frequently enough so that the kids can remember each other from event to event was now, news of the war in Afghanistan and the continuing US military operations in Iraq and elsewhere in the world are often in the news. Do you find that that prolongs grief or renews grief for these kids? I think it's a different kind of grief. Not all of our kids lose parents or lose a loved one due to being deployed in it is over there fighting. We have kids love lost a parent in a more cycle accident or just a disease. So I do think it's something specific to military kids. If your dad or mom lost their life in Afghanistan that anytime that reported that there is a upsurge in activity. I do think that that can be a trigger and that's what is things that we work with these kids on. Jonathan, sounds like many of these children's return to TAPS good grief camp here of the year. What kinds of changes do you see in them. --? They do return and what happens when they turn 18 is that they themselves become mentors. Whenever goals is to increase that and one thing I would love to see is one third of our mentors are actually campers who have return your after year. We have full-grown adults now who refer to themselves as TAPS kids in return to TAPS as her family. It is awesome to be a part of this organization that can be a part of a family's life from the time an infant is born if necessary holding space for grieving children, holding children for grieving teens and young adults and also their parents work of the kids kind of grow up in TAPS and the ones that I've gotten to know what done that once in social work school and others come back to be mentors. You're just like the rest of us. Their full functioning human beings who are wanting to get back to a society. I think speaking with Jonathan Kirkendall director of the camps. In queue. Thank you.

Elliot Kim was about halfway through a hot and dusty hike in Julian when he decided he was done walking.

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The 8-year-old climbed onto the back of Ty Barrion, his parents' friend. Elliot was tired — this was his first time at sleepaway camp and he hadn't slept well the night before.

When the hike ended, Elliot and Barrion sat down to rest and started playing a game with Elliot’s name tag.

"Ready? Concentrating? One, two, three," Barrion said, and dropped the tag, letting Elliot try to catch it.

On it was a picture of Elliot's father, Coast Guard Cmdr. Scott Kim, who drowned two years ago.

Kim was one of more than 12,000 American military personnel who have died since the Iraq War ended in 2003. A nonprofit called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, works with the families left behind.

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Each summer TAPS holds a series of Good Grief Campouts across the country, including one in Julian last month that Elliot attended. About 40 kids were at the three-day camp.

Each camper was paired with a mentor who is in the military. Barrion, a Marine captain, was Elliot's mentor, and also knew his parents.

"I don’t want to fill the void of Scott. That’s not my job. I could never do what Scott had done for his family, but at least I can help create those memories for Elliot when he grows up," Barrion said.

Creating good memories is one of the goals of Good Grief Campouts. They’re part learning coping skills — and part just having fun.

"To ensure kids understand that what happened in their life with regard to their parent is an event in their life, but not a defining moment in their life," Barrion said. "It’s something that they can be aware of, but they don’t have to dwell on it, it doesn’t have to be the only thing people address them about."

How does Elliot feel having Barrion as his mentor?

"Happy," the boy whispered.

"We’re all really close friends and we all love each other," Elliot said. "That’s why he gives me piggyback rides."

Katie Schoolov
Elliot Kim and Ty Barrion hike in Julian during a Good Grief Campout, July 25, 2016.

Elliot said being at the camp "makes me feel like I’m part of the community."

"Because not many people in my school have lost their dads and moms," he said.

While it's Elliot's first time at camp, some campers have been going for years. Athena Gonzales, 12, has been to several after her father died while fighting in Afghanistan five years ago.

Each morning starts with circle time, which gives campers different ways of expressing themselves. They do crafts to remember their parents, or have group discussions. Some questions are easier, such as what was her father’s favorite color. Others are harder.

"The hardest question, I feel like it’s still the hardest question to this day, is how I learned he died," Athena said. "That’s hard for me to say, but in the end it feels good to be able to tell other people."

She said that time connects kids who understand each other.

"I feel like it helps them remember the life and the love they had with that person, and celebrate it rather than being more depressed over it," she said.

After circle time, Athena hit the climbing wall. She was a bit nervous, but tackled it with coaching from her mentor.

Katie Schoolov
Athena Gonzales tackles a climbing wall in Julian at a Good Grief Campout, July 25, 2016.

Watching her climb from a nearby picnic table was Ashlynne Haycock, who was a camper for eight years and now works for TAPS.

Her father died in Army training in 2002. In 2011, her mother, who had served in the Air Force, committed suicide.

The 25-year-old Haycock said the camp saved her, because when she was growing up she didn’t know anyone who had lost a parent.

Katie Schoolov
Ashlynne Haycock talks to campers at a Good Grief Campout in Julian, July 25, 2016.

"Everything that TAPs did really normalized what I was going through," she said. "It made me feel like it was OK that I missed my father still, that even five, six years out that I still cried and still dreaded the anniversary of his death and his birthdays were still hard. To know that other kids were going through that, too, made it so much easier."

Those camp friends then supported her during the year. Haycock said she loves seeing new campers start having fun.

"It’s OK for them to not want to cry. It’s OK for them to have fun, and to enjoy their time together," she said. "It doesn’t have to be all tears and circle time and depressing, which is what so many people think grief camp is."

After lunch, the campers all convened in the pool. There, Elliot and Barrion invented another game, using pool noodles like baseball bats to hit tennis balls. As they splashed and laughed, other kids joined them to play, too.

Katie Schoolov
Elliot Kim catches a tennis ball in the pool at a Good Grief Campout, July 25, 2016.