MARQUETTE - Dr. Larry Skendzel knows children need all the help they can get when it comes to dealing with the loss of a loved one. And he knows that, despite their best efforts, many medical professionals are often unable to provide meaningful assistance.
"As a primary care physician, I've been in the position of watching a family lose a father or mother and then having the teenagers or kids really struggle," he said. "As much as I tried to help them, I realized they needed a safe place to develop coping skills that I couldn't give them in an office."
That realization is what prompted Skendzel to set the wheels in motion on an organization that is now called the Upper Peninsula Children's Bereavement Network.
At the end of the weekend Camp Live, Laugh, Love in Gaylord, Mich., campers attach messages to balloons, sending them skyward to their loved ones who have passed away. (UPCBN photo)
A staple of the U.P.-wide UPCBN will be an annual children's bereavement camp, called Camp Start, which will focus on children 8 to 16 years old and will help them to learn healthy grieving habits and coping skills in the wake of a personal loss.
The first session of the camp is scheduled for Aug. 10-12, 2012 at Bay Cliff Health Camp in Big Bay.
"I wanted to believe the Upper Peninsula could do something like this and then Bay Cliff Health Camp stepped forward and they have been a very willing partner."
During the camp, children will be paired with a slightly older camp buddy, who will be with them for the entire weekend. Participants will take part in a number of games and activities and will have an opportunity to share artwork and writings related to the loss of their loved ones.
"Everybody knows teenagers don't always look to adults for advice ... that is something that echoes in the research," said Sarah Harnett, a member of the UPCBN planning committee and a child life specialist at Marquette General Hospital. "Kids are going to do better with their peers. That's why something like this kids camp is good. It makes it easier for them to share and to talk about it."
This summer, a number of those involved with the UPCBN took part in Camp Live, Laugh, Love in lower Michigan, a camp they hope to model Camp Star after. Skendzel attended and said the experience was moving.
"I watched a girl stand in front of an audience and read a letter to her dead father, forgiving him for dying," he said. "It was just incredibly heartwarming to see that after just a weekend of camp she had the courage to get up there and do something like that."
Skendzel said he would like to meet a couple of long-term goals. First, he would like to see camp participants return as camp buddies in later years and connect with younger kids who are facing similar situations. Additionally, he would like to see UPCBN establish a bereavement center focusing on entire families and the interactions among members.
"We're trying to continue to build a network of people interested in this issue. If people are interested, we'd love to hear from them," he said. "There is tons of work to do here and healthy communities pay attention to this."
Anyone interested in donating, volunteering or joining the UPCBN or in taking part in Camp Star should call Sarah Harnett at 906-225-3420 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is email@example.com.