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Camp Emily in Fergus Falls helps children cope with death

FERGUS FALLS, MN - Though her life was very brief, little Emily Johnson's legacy has gone on to touch scores of people, many of them also children. 

This year marks the fifth anniversary of Camp Emily, a day camp developed through the bereavement program of Lakeland Hospice, especially designed for children ages 7-18 who have experienced the death of someone they love. 

Camp Emily was started by Lakeland Hospice Foundation in 2007, a year after Emily passed away. Her family wanted something special to remember her by, something that would spread some of the love that she had known during her short life. 

This year's Camp Emily will be held on Saturday, October 8 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Lakeland Hospice House in Fergus Falls.  Past participants are often from the surrounding area, but have also come from as far as Winnipeg, Manitoba and South Dakota.  Thanks to generous donations from area sponsors, there is no charge to participate in Camp Emily and children are invited back year after year.

As many as 37 people at a time have participated in the camp, held each fall.  The day-long event has been held at a number of facilities over the years, including the Fergus Falls Salvation Army, area churches and last year for the first time at the Lakeland Hospice House.

Losing a parent, sibling, grandparent, relative, friend or classmate, can leave a child grasping for how to cope with intense feelings and profound loss. Parents or guardians accompany the youth for the day, participating in the experience and learning more about their own grief in the process.

"I found it hard to help my grandchildren and adult children with their grief when I was grieving, too.   Camp Emily brings us together to learn how to express our grief and provide tools to heal.  Being with others in a similar situation is reassuring and comforting," explained Dianne Herman, grandmother of Emily Johnson.

According to Bonnie Wallin, LSW, Bereavement Coordinator at Lakeland Hospice & Home Care, "Camp Emily is a day of healing and connecting with others, giving opportunities for people to feel less isolated and to connect with others who are on a similar journey."

Each year trained facilitators are brought on board bringing expertise in the fields of grief counseling and personal loss.  Funeral Home Directors, school counselors and bereavement social workers meet throughout the year in preparation for the activities and events of this special one-day event.  Because of the complexity of the situations, whether multiple losses, or the death of a parent or sibling, the professionals need to be prepared to help on a one-to-one basis, the children and families who are struggling with their grief.

The day opens with a candle lighting ceremony in remembrance of Emily.  Throughout the day, grief education and support along with age appropriate activities are incorporated and attendees are invited to share their feelings.  Participants have the opportunity to express themselves through creative arts, including designing a quilt square containing a memory of their loved one. 

Dianne Herman sews the quilt pieces together while the families gather and get to know others who have also experienced loss.  "It's a great day for healing and connecting with others who have lost loved ones. It's nice to watch the kids' transformation throughout the day as they become more comfortable with their groups and start making friends with others with their same struggles," added Lynn Johnson, Emily's mother.

The day ends with a balloon release for the group... a thought or message floating up in the sky... reminding each person that their loved one lives on in the memories and hearts of the survivors.  Dianne brings back the quilt, now completed to show the group how they came together in their grief, but leave united in their healing.

Children's responses to having been at Camp Emily include, "I feel happier knowing others feel the same as I do by talking about my loved ones.""I learned there's a lot more people out there that have had a loss.""I learned it's better to talk to somebody than not to."

Registration for Camp Emily has been extended to Wednesday, October 5.  To sign up or for more information contact Lakeland Hospice at (218) 998-1400 during business hours and ask for the bereavement department.  The camp is open to people of all ethnic, cultural, and spiritual backgrounds.