Camp helps families move on after loss

Camp helps families move on after loss

DEMAREST – When Phyllis Klein died of breast cancer in ’00’, her husband, Henry, would eagerly have gone to a family bereavement camp with his teenage children — if only one had existed. Three years ago, the borough resident founded one.

Social worker Greg Hedler does an arts and craft project with Carlos and Carlito Ortiz.

"It struck me that there should be programs for people who have lost a family member to cancer — a weekend retreat, a camp," said Klein, who practices law in Englewood with the firm of Klein & Radol.

Klein had already set up Phyl’s Fund, a foundation in his late wife’s memory to promote cancer support groups in the area. But he felt something more was needed, and after tossing around ideas with fellow congregants at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, he started a subsidiary of Phyl’s Fund and called it Hearts of Hope.

Hearts of Hope camps meet several weekends each summer, free to any family that has lost a close relative to cancer in the previous three or four years. Six to eight families —sometimes including grandparents or aunts and uncles — have attended each of the four sessions so far.

This year’s session was held in early June at Cedar Lake, the New Jersey Y Camp in Milford, Pa. Y camps have hosted the non-sectarian program since ‘006, providing a kosher environment for Jewish participants that is simultaneously comfortable for families of other faiths, said Klein.

"During the course of regular summer-camp activities like swimming and baseball, we also offer age-appropriate grief counseling," he said.

"Our approach is helping family members learn to normalize their lives by teaching a balance between bereavement and enjoyment, creating the understanding that it’s okay to laugh and have a good time," said Greg Hedler, one of the grief counselors who has worked at Hearts of Hope. "A lot of people have survivor guilt."

Klein explained that the time spent "hanging out" is just as important as the active therapy.

"You might have two children trying to catch a frog in the lake and they discover they recently both lost their mothers. Or you’ll have two men talking over breakfast about losing their wives and how to go about dating again. That kind of intimacy, that social interaction outside of the groups, is sometimes the first step in expressing those feelings and becoming whole," said Klein. "A lot of these people haven’t grieved at all, haven’t met others in their situation, and are kind of lost with it."

Many of the activities are designed specifically to evoke memories of the person who passed away, in order to stimulate engagement and discussion.

"We create boats from milk cartons, and on Saturday evening we do a memorial service where we have music and poetry, place lighted candles inside the boats, and launch them on the lake in memory of the loved ones," said Hedler. "It’s so powerful. This year, when the boats were released they stayed close to shore, and one [participant] finally took a stick and pushed his boat out. Symbolically, it was incredible to be able to push it out and release it. We all stood there about 45 minutes, holding each other and listening to the music, watching the boats. That’s an image that stays with me."

Carol Schulter thinks of the camp as "a safe zone" that set her, and her then 1′-year-old daughter, on "our journey of healing." They came to Hearts of Hope in June ‘006, 10 months after Schulter’s husband passed away.

"The camp gave my daughter and me the opportunity to be with other families in the same situation," said Schulter, the creative director at Tenafly’s Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. "Our weekend experience also allowed my daughter to finally be able to accept herself. She had felt very isolated from her peers and classmates after her dad died. The Hearts of Hope weekend enabled her to relate to other children who had gone through the same traumatizing experience and they could see together that they could live through it with pride, because they gave each other hope."

Schulter said she was grateful that the registration process was so unobtrusive. "We only had to put our names on a piece of paper and register. Everything else was done for us. It freed us from the usual process of seeking out help, explaining the situation over and over again to strangers. We were treated like family."

Hedler said that families get referred to the camp from various sources, including Tomorrows Children’s Institute at Hackensack University Medical Center, Gilda’s Club, Emmanuel Cancer Foundation, and Friends of Karen.

"In the end, it comes down to the fact that they’ve got a commonality of loss, and they forge a close connection with one another," said Hedler, who was joined by social workers Andrea Inauen and Adriana Acosta this June. "We had some Spanish-speaking families this year, and we thought it would be a challenge, but the activities we had planned broke all barriers of language. It was simply because they’d each lost someone they loved."

Klein has attended every session, sometimes accompanied by his children, Emily, ‘3, and Peter, ‘1. "If there had been such a camp when I lost my wife it would have been wonderful," he said. "Long range, my goal is to have two or three sessions every summer, and maybe one in the winter. I want people to get away and out of their usual context, meeting other people they can relate to."

Phyl’s Fund will have its sixth annual fundraiser on Nov. ‘, to be held in Tenafly in conjunction with Bergen County’s United Way. Next summer’s camp session will be held the weekend of June 1’-14.

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