What I experienced at Camp Evergreen

Photo above: Anna-Gene O’Neal and the Yellow Picachus.

What I experienced at Camp Evergreen

Alive’s CEO on being an assistant counselor at children’s grief support camp

Published on September 1, 2017 By Anna-Gene O’Neal, President & CEO

The first few years of my tenure at Alive, I observed the closing ceremony for Camp Evergreen, one of our children’s grief support camps, from the back of the room. I frankly could not imagine having a child experience this level of loss. I kept my distance, proud of the camp but not willing to enter this fragile space personally.

I, like so many others, was avoiding something that made me uncomfortable. Something that makes all of us uncomfortable.

In reality, both of my children experienced this level of loss at a very young age. My father-in-law, their grandfather, who had lived with us for years, experienced a sudden death. My son Bates, 8 at the time, was the first one to him when he collapsed suddenly and had to flag down help. My daughter was also home at the time and had to serve as the support for her grandmother as she called 911. Resuscitative efforts were unsuccessful.

I was terrified. But then I saw magic happen.

This was 13 years ago. Camp Evergreen was here, but we didn’t know it existed or even that grief support was available in the community for us. So maybe this is why I supported the camps outwardly but kept my distance personally.

Then Khette Cox, one of Alive’s chaplains and longtime camp counselor asked – OK, she told me – to join camp as a counselor’s assistant the following year.

I did. I was terrified. But then I saw magic happen.

The week began with children ages 6-13 quiet and nervous, very unsure. Camp was like any normal camp on the outside. Arts and crafts, treasure hunts and swimming. But on the inside, it was all different. Every activity is intentional to create a trusted environment through which the children can begin to share. And share they did.

Our group called themselves the Yellow Picachus. They were 11-12 years old. The loss that brought them to this camp was a father who died of cancer, a mother who was tragically killed in an automobile accident, a brother who died from an asthma attack, a father who committed suicide and other heart-wrenching losses.

They shared their stories and their feelings.

They were comforted by knowing there are others who have had similar experiences and who can talk to them “normally” because they have walked in each other’s shoes.

They could ask questions and laugh and cry; it was a safe space.

They shared their fears of loss of memories to coveting pictures and their special objects.

They acknowledged that their inner feelings were often masked, and what they showed on the outside was not the same as what they felt on the inside.

They played and roughhoused, they almost drowned me in the swimming pool, and did all the things children are supposed to do.

Most importantly, they experienced community. A door was opened, and we invited them in. They forever will have a place to go and friendships shared as a result of these camp experiences.

You see, we cannot leave those who have already lost someone behind, especially children and children of all ages. We walk with them and guide them on their own journey to healing.

As long as the camp leadership will have me, I will be a counselor’s assistant. The ability to witness healing right in front of your eyes, in three short days, and to walk beside the Alive team members who run this camp is one of the most amazing things I have experienced in my life.

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