A special camp helps NJ kids cope with loss in a fun environment
HARDWICK — A free bereavement resource designed to help children who have experienced the death of a loved one to better cope with such a loss is coming to New Jersey this month.
Comfort Zone Camp was started 23 years ago by founder and CEO Lynne Hughes who lost both of her parents when she was a child.
“It was lonely and isolating, and there weren’t any resources. I had a love for summer camp. So, I wanted to create a safe place for kids to grieve and also in a fun environment,” Hughes said.
In the 23 years of its existence, Comfort Zone Camp, based out of Richmond, Virginia, has helped more than 20,000 children ages 7 to 17.
Hughes said the camp really helped kids during the Sept. 11 attacks. The camp was three years old when she realized there was nobody doing anything like this in the New York/New Jersey region. So, Comfort Zone Camp came to New York in November 2001, just two months after the tragedy, with programs for kids grieving a loss.
When COVID-19 hit, the camp offered virtual programming. Then, it morphed into in-person camps for COVID families, Hughes said.
There is a Comfort Zone Camp in New Jersey this weekend at Camp Mason in Hardwick Township, from Oct. 21 through Oct. 23. About 65 kids are expected to attend, said regional camp director Krista Collopy.
First, children will arrive and get matched one-on-one with a volunteer who has a similar personality and similar interests. The kids all meet each other, and each has experienced a death in their family.
There are small groups called healing circles in which kids can talk about their loss. They form bonds with other kids and, before they know it, they don’t feel so alone and isolated in that loss, Collopy said.
Fun is also woven into the three-day weekend. Collopy said sometimes when a loved one dies, a child is forced to take on more responsibilities. They either forget how to be a kid or feel like they can’t be happy again because of the death.
So, at the camp, they get to be a kid again.
“They get to do archery, canoeing, and candle making while also learning coping skills that they can take with them and be more resilient in their life. They learn how to grieve, heal, and grow at a Comfort Zone Camp weekend in just three days,” Collopy said.
To be honest, many of the kids do not want to be there at the start of the camp, Collopy said. She would know because Collopy was a former camper at Comfort Zone Camp.
When she went for the first time at 16 years old, Collopy had no desire to be there. But then after a few hours, she got settled and heard another camper’s story that was similar to hers: her dad also died from a brain tumor. Collopy said she instantly felt at ease.
“I left the weekend wanting to come back, wanting to be a volunteer, and now being a director. I see it time and time again, year after year. Kids get so much out of the weekend and when parents come to pick them up on Sunday, they see a changed child,” Collopy said.
Once the weekend ends, the healing does not end.
“It continues with the relationships that are made and the kids connect often with their big buddy volunteers and with other kids in their healing circles. There are often group chats that are formed and made. We have support groups virtually and in-person that they can plug into and we have social events that families and volunteers can plug into in the community,” Hughes said.
The best part is that the kids are invited back year after year. Grief does not have an expiration date, she added. A great outgrowth of this is that she’s seen so many former campers return as volunteers, and even regional directors.
Collopy said a 2023 calendar is due out soon with all the Comfort Zone Camp dates for New Jersey and surrounding areas.
To sign up for a camp, which is free, visit here.
A parent component has also been added. Since COVID-19, parents can participate and attend a separate program, along with their kids so the whole family can heal.
Lynne Hughes said she wants Comfort Zone Camp to be a top-of-mind resource when it comes to helping kids cope with loss. She hopes the camp will become a household name in the New Jersey area.
Both Collopy and Hughes stressed that kids are never alone; There is healing at Comfort Zone Camp.
Looking into the future, Hughes said she hopes to continue to create resources and evolve with technology, continue to do virtual camps, and have support groups both virtually and in-person. She also plans to expand geographically to more regions around the country.