Lessons Learned: We Are Not Alone

by Bob Ditter

The Camp Community's Response to September 11: What We Did, Why We Did It, and What It Means

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It was an emotional moment when the two buses finally pulled into camp that sunny Sunday afternoon in late August. I remember welling up with feeling and noticing a similar reaction in many of the adults around me as we crossed the grassy field heading toward the buses. It was a feeling I did not fully understand until camp was over at the end of the week.

Many of us had been planning for this moment for nine months. We were about to be entrusted with seventy-eight children, each of whom had lost a parent the year before. Many were the sons and daughters of firefighters and others who perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11. America's Camp, as it had come to be called, was the brainchild of Jed Dorfman of Camp Walt Whitman. Jed, along with Jay Toporoff of Camp Danbee and other sponsoring members of the CampGroup, had received an endorsement for the camp from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Larry Levy, president of the Twin Towers Fund. Once sanctioned in this way, they were able to gain access to some of the families who had, understandably, been extremely wary of the press and most any organization trying to approach them. After all, what was for us a national tragedy was for them a very personal and private loss. Later, as we came to know the children at camp, it became clear that their experiences were fundamentally different from ours. September 11 was a day we felt changed America. For them it was the day their fathers or mothers died.

The Salient Factor

Our first lesson at America's Camp came early. While many of the campers came with siblings, most of the children did not know one another. As we watched over them in those first few hours, it appeared that one of the older female campers was segregating herself from the rest of her group and perhaps aligning herself with one other child separate from the rest of the group. We wondered if there was an emerging racial issue, as the two girls isolating themselves were of the same race, which was different from the rest of the group.

It was not so much of a stretch for us to wonder about this. After all, the two girls did come from a culture and background that probably made them feel initially different from the others, and this difference probably was the basis for their "finding" one another. Before our wonder could go much further, however, the "group magic" happened. The fact that these two girls had the same compelling reason to be at camp as all the other campers made any differences, real as they might be, ultimately unimportant. It quickly became clear to us that the one thing that these children had in common - the recent loss of a parent - was so compelling, so powerful for them and us, that any other difference, whether it was race, hometown, even gender, was trivial by comparison. They all belonged to the same "club," as it were, finally together in one place here at the end of the summer.

We were witnessing what Judith Harris, in her book titled The Nurture Assumption, described as the salient factor, a well-known concept in social psychology. In the case of our campers, the most powerful salient factor was that they had all suffered a sudden loss of a parent. This was the one common condition that gave the group its strongest identity. As Harris points out, "when a particular social category (in this case, the loss of a parent) is salient and you categorize yourself as a member of it - that is when the group will have the most influence on you."

This notion of salience is a bit tricky. What makes a group condition salient, which is to say prominent or conspicuous, is the presence of a contrasting factor within the group or in another group. For example, the social category "lost a parent" is not salient in a group of children who all have the recent death of a parent in common. As soon as some children who have not lost a parent are present, everyone who has lost a parent recognizes how they are "different." It suddenly stands out. The campers themselves told us how, when they were part of other camp programs that summer where they were the only child who had lost a parent, they resented being, as they put it, the "9-11 kids." As individuals in these mainstream programs, they always felt "different" or self-conscious or "looked at."

One child told us that she came to resent it when adults or other children would ask, "How are you doing?" - a question which immediately drew attention to the fact that she was different. (It is interesting to see how what is intended as a question of concern from caring adults can so easily be experienced as uncomfortable or unwanted by the children to whom that care is directed!) Even though each child had suffered a tremendous and shocking loss, they, like most children, did not want to be different or singled out from other children.

The relief for most of the campers at America's Camp was that all the other campers were just like they were. It was not only "no big deal" to talk about your dad, the firefighter, from a certain engine company, but a relief. Finally the story of one camper could be echoed with the story of not only all the other campers in his or her bunk, but, indeed, the entire camp.

Committed Staff

The loss the children had suffered was clearly felt by the staff. Though the counselors had by and large not suffered what the children had suffered (a few counselors and many of the volunteer adult grief workers had themselves lost a parent, spouse, or child), they had volunteered to be at America's Camp because of the sympathy they had with the children's loss. Coming from five different camps, two all male, two all female, and one coed, each with very distinct and different cultures and styles, the staff blended and worked together at an amazingly high level of cooperation and collaboration.

This was no small feat. The counselors from the five camps were, after all, the cream of the crop - the strongest of the staff from their respective camps who were used to taking initiative, taking charge, getting things done, going the extra mile and doing it with flourish, vigor, and spirit. In other words, we had 120 leaders. My concern was that these wonderful, committed, highly motivated, hard-working young adults would fall all over each other. How would they, strong characters that they were, work out on such short notice, having literally been thrown together in less than thirty-six hours - who would do what and who would follow whose lead?

Once again the group magic happened. The desire to serve these children, with their compelling history, was so complete that it overcame any clash of ego or conflict of style. As one counselor put it, "We're here for the kids. It doesn't matter whose idea is most impressive or who the most popular counselor is. What matters is that we give these kids the best week of their lives."

Power struggles or ego trips were simply out of the question for this staff. Such was the power of their commitment, mirroring the condition of the children. They were truly able to put the needs of these children ahead of their own. Indeed, during a debriefing session I held for staff at the end of the week, one counselor quipped that "inter-camp games will be forever ruined for me" because, as he said, he could not imagine competing in any serious way with people he had become so close to and worked with so well.

The Buddy System

One of the most important aspects of America's Camp was the presence of two different groups of adults and their respective outlook and mission regarding the children. Over twenty volunteers and leaders from the Center for Grieving Children (CGC) in Portland, Maine, joined the counselor staff. The Center was established fifteen years ago by a man named Bill Hemmens, whose adult sister died of terminal cancer leaving him to find help with his own grief and that of his niece. The CGC volunteers, or "buddies" as they were called at camp, partnered with the counselor staff to be available for campers who might have grief issues regarding the loss of their parent. (We had one child who lost her mother three months after her father died on September 11.)

There were many differences between the buddies, and the cabin and program counselors chosen from CampGroup camps. First, as a group, the buddies were older. Many were parents and a number of them had experienced a death of their own child, spouse, or parent. As a group, the buddies were consequently more identified with the campers and less identified with the general staff. In addition, each buddy volunteer had received over twenty hours of training specifically around grief work and came from an organization whose mission " . . . is to provide support to children and teens who are grieving the death or coping with the life-threatening illness of an important person in their lives." This in turn shaped what was perhaps the greatest difference between these two staff groups, which was their vision of what camp would actually be about.

Counselors, especially high performers the likes of which we had at America's Camp, saw their job as "keeping the kids happy" - play hard, laugh often, and do as much as possible in the week we have together. In some ways, the staff was helping the children "keep their minds off their pain." They had come to give what they were the experts at giving children - a great time. The orientation of the "buddies" was, of course, just the opposite. Their vision was to provide a forum for and allow the campers, in their own time and in their own way, to talk about and remember their beloved parent.

Deciding which direction to go was a tension we felt all week at camp. I like to think it was a healthy tension - an issue that needed debate and discussion without any one "right" resolution. Prior input from the parents did not offer us any great guidance. Our parents had explicitly said they did not want a "grief camp," yet no one truly asked in detail just what having a "grief camp" meant to them. Did this mean they didn't want their children to feel sorry for themselves or to dwell on the death of their other parent and become morose? This, of course, would be in keeping with a healthy urge to go on with life. Yet, our camper parents also said they wanted their children to be with other children who had had the same experience as they so that, in the words of one mom, "he would know he's not the only one." Parents wanted their children to come home with the names and addresses of other kids they could maintain contact with and see throughout the school year - kids who were "just like them."

Facing Our Feelings

As a therapist, I think about the balance between giving time for feelings and "moving on" with life quite a lot. As Americans, we are busy people. One aspect of our being so busy is how much of a distraction it affords us from feeling.

Whether it is pain, uncertainty, sorrow, sadness, or anguish, if we keep ourselves busy enough, we won't feel it. As Americans, we have many distractions to help us avoid feelings. A recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, stated that the true appeal of sports is the tremendous distraction it offers to the difficulties of life.

Many people have spoken about September 11 as a kind of "wake-up call," like cold water on the face - something no amount of diversion could help us avoid. One lesson we can take from the campers of America's Camp is that, given the opening and the support, we as people can heal ourselves through play, games, building, talking, sharing, and having our feelings.

As I said to the staff during our hurried orientation, we can't "make" children feel anything they don't already feel. We simply either give them the space and the structure
to have their feelings in constructive ways, or we help them avoid those feelings by distraction and over programming. As one camper said, "I like thinking of my dad. He was a hero. He saved a lot of people. Why would I not want to talk about that?"

Indeed, it was, ironically enough, the children themselves who led the way. On the very first day many of our campers - boys and girls alike - were wearing T-shirts and sweat shirts showing their father's engine company and the names of all the fallen firefighters from that company. Or, they were wearing bracelets with their parent's name, or a locket or necklace with their parent's picture. What clearer signal could they have given us that there was a very important person in their lives that they were more than ready to tell us about?

A Celebration of Joyand Remembrance

What did we finally accomplish?I suppose that depends on whom you ask.I think America's Camp did a remarkable job of giving the children both one fun-filled, exciting, happy week; and a safe, supportive, responsive community in which to celebrate and remember their parent. That the memory often comes with sadness, pain, or anger is the nature of life. The counselors helped those children reconnect with their sense of wonder, their sense of adventure, and their sense of humor. The program staff did a monumental job of doing in one week what usually happens in three or four. And the buddies helped the children of America's Camp have their memories and their feelings - helping them see the continued connection they would always have with their "lost" parent.

At the end of the week, after the children had left, I conducted a debriefing session with the staff, the likes of which, in terms of honesty and depth of sharing, I am sure many of those counselors had never experienced before. Danny Metzger, camp director, spoke for all when he said, "I came here determined to give these kids one of the best weeks of their lives. Little did I know that they would give me one of the best weeks of my life."

Another staff member felt perplexed and sad about the fact that one of the campers seemed angry with her all the time, for no explicable reason. When I explained that "children will make us into whomever they need us to be in order to do the work they came here to do," it clicked for her. She immediately realized that this female camper was probably very angry that her father had "left her" and that the only person close enough to her that she could express her anger to was her mother. This week this female adult staff member was her "mother."

Another staff member stood up and said, "I've always enjoyed being a counselor - and I think I do a good job of it. This week was different for me. I got the feeling that this week I wasn't just a counselor; it was like I was a parent to these kids." Indeed, we were all parents to these children that week.

There were many other lessons at America's Camp, perhaps too many to name here. One that stays with me is how the loss each one of those children has experienced cannot help but resonate with the loss each of us eventually feels as a human being. There is no way out of this dilemma, except never to become attached to anyone. For those of us who dare to love, the loss is a matter of time. Yet, what is the choice? For America's Camp it was to celebrate the love and importance of that special person, knowing we are not alone in this - our most basic humanity. This is certainly the root of the emotion I felt walking across the field to greet our campers that first day of America's Camp last August. I cannot imagine a better gift to give . . . and receive.

Bob Ditter, licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy and on site mental health consultant to America's Camp, August 2002. The Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine, can be contacted at 207-775-5216 or at www.cgcmaine.org.

Harris, Judith Rich. (1998). The Nurture Assumption. New York: The Free Press (Simon and Schuster, Inc.).
The Center for Grieving Children (CGC). 1999. Supporting Children and Teens Through Grief and Loss: A Guide for Parents. Portland, Maine.
"The True Appeal of Sports," The New York Times Sunday Magazine, September 29, 2002.


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Originally published in the 2003 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

Tags: 9-11