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Comfort Zone Camp Creates Helpers

Image via Comfort Zone Camp

15 Years After 9/11 There Are New Beginnings For the Children

Pete Shrock has a favorite quote, and it's one that describes him to a T:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world." –Fred Rogers

As chief program officer of Comfort Zone Camp, Pete is one of the helpers, bringing healing and closure to children and adults who are grieving. After the disasters, after the scary events that make headlines, Comfort Zone is there to help.

Founded in 1998, Comfort Zone Camp was once based exclusively in Richmond, Virginia, offering regular bereavement camps for children who would travel from all over the country to attend … until one unimaginable disaster helped crystallize their mission. On September 11, 2001, when terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands, the people at Comfort Zone knew they needed to reach out and be helpers.

Within just a few months, they had prepared a special bereavement camp weekend for children who lost a parent or other loved one in the Twin Towers. They took that camp to New Jersey, bringing their much-needed services to an area still in shock.

One of the campers at that first camp away from Richmond was Katie Lalama, who was just 7 when her father, Franco Lalama, died in the World Trade Center. Fifteen years later, Katie enthusiastically volunteers for Comfort Zone, telling us she's attended "pretty much every camp, every year," since that first New Jersey weekend.

We talked to Pete and Katie about why they love Comfort Zone, and they painted a picture of a magical, transformational experience that combines traditional summer camp fun – a bonfire, a challenge course – with proven techniques for healing from grief. "Magical" was a word Katie used several times as she tried to put words to her 15 years of involvement with Comfort Zone.

"If there's one word to describe it, it's clearly magic," Katie told us. "Every part of it is special in every single way. Every activity you do revolves around grief, and a lot of times you don't realize it until after. It's amazing. Once you experience it, it's unforgettable."

Pete told us more about those activities, explaining that a key component of camp – which typically takes place over the course of a weekend – is the healing circle. Campers and counselors break off into small groups several times during camp, talking about their experiences and sharing how grief has affected their lives. It's a talk-heavy moment that could seem scary to a newbie, but the folks at Comfort Zone work to make sure everyone is comfortable and ready.

A big part of that work is pairing each and every camper with a Big Buddy, who is individually chosen to be a perfect match. Big Buddies are adults who have been thoroughly screened and extensively trained. When a Big Buddy has gone through training and is ready to help provide grief relief, his or her personality and experiences are considered while choosing a compatible child to mentor. It's a painstaking process that can result in an uncanny similarity – and a deep bond.

Big Buddies help their Little Buddies in many ways as camp unfolds, but one of the key things they do is demonstrate how to talk about their grief. The Big Buddies will be the first to step up and share: As Pete put it, they are "modeling to the surviving children what it means to share your story or how to share your story, and that you can determine what that looks like for you." After hearing their Big Buddies speak, the children are better prepared to share their own grief in a healing circle.

Anyone who might doubt the usefulness of talking it out in a healing circle needs only to look at the real-world results to come away convinced. Pete told us about one young girl who spent the beginning of camp weeping. Nobody knew just what was behind her tears. When Pete and her Big Buddy were able to get her to talk it out, they discovered that she thought she was responsible for her father's death, having called him back on his way to work to ask for a hug – which delayed his drive to work, during which he was killed in an accident.

"What if she had gone 20 years in her life feeling that, never articulating that, feeling as though she was responsible," Pete asked. "How would that have influenced her decisions, her communication, her willingness to openly love? Would she have shut down, would she have stopped opening up to people? Would she have stopped calling people to tell them that she loved them, embrace them?" But prompted by her supportive Comfort Zone network, she was able to confront her fear, to learn how not to blame herself, to discuss scary feelings before they led her down a damaging path.

Katie herself is another success story of Comfort Zone. "After my dad passed away, I was very angry," she told us. "I didn't know how to handle my emotions, and the only way I knew how to channel it was through anger." Comfort Zone left her "a completely changed person," better able to work through her emotions and express her grief.

It's not just the healing circles that help grieving children in profound ways. Both Pete and Katie talked about the Saturday night bonfire that's a central part of the Comfort Zone experience. Like any other camp bonfire, it begins with food and fun – roasting marshmallows for s'mores, singing call-and-response tunes, playing games. As the night darkens and the coals glow, a ceremony begins.

Each camper, young and old, writes the name of the loved one they've lost on a piece of paper, along with a message to that person if they wish to include it. One by one, they step up, say their loved one's name, and place their paper in the fire. Pete described the togetherness of the moment: "These kids get to stand in the dark together and realize that there's a whole community of individuals that have experienced loss out there. And it shatters that theory that you are the only one that understands."

Katie loves the bonfire, noting how it can transform your grief: "It’s a time when you can really just be with everybody, be there together, but there's also something about the darkness of the night at the bonfire, and having the bonfire there, that shines a light into the darkness of your own life, and it helps turn the dark into light."

The bonfire does more than bring people together and shed light on darkness. It also provides closure. Katie is one of the hundreds of children of 9/11 victims who watched a parent go off to work with no idea they'd never come home, no opportunity to say goodbye. In fact, on the day in 2001 that began like any other day, when she was a brand-new second-grader, Katie might not have even said goodbye to her dad as he left. She can't remember.

"That's very hard," she says. But she handles it by writing goodbye notes to her father every time she attends a Comfort Zone bonfire. "So every time I go to camp, it's like I keep saying goodbye over and over again. That's something that can't be taken away."

The Comfort Zone Camp weekend also includes a challenge course, which they call a confidence course. It's one of the many ways Comfort Zone seamlessly knits together traditional summer fun and healing reflection. 

As the campers navigate the obstacles, they're not thinking about their grief. But afterward, Pete tells us, counselors and Big Buddies talk to the children about how the course made them feel: "What did it feel like to feel like you didn't have control? What did it feel like to have a challenge in front of you and to have to rely on other people? What did it feel like being the first one? What did it feel like being the last one, where you've seen everyone successfully do it and now everybody's turned around watching, waiting for you?"

The answers to those questions follow the campers into another healing circle, where they can apply their answers to their healing processes. And so goes camp throughout the weekend: The fun stuff and the healing are intertwined, and when camp comes to a close, campers are likely to leave as changed people. The shy ones have opened up; the ones who were sealed in their grief have found ways to talk about it; the unsure ones are wondering how soon they can come back to Comfort Zone. "They have," Katie says, "a piece of camp with them always that helps them remind themselves of what they've learned and how they can take it into everyday life."

The final activity at Comfort Zone Camp is a closing ceremony, which Katie describes as similar to a group memorial service. "The kids and the healing circles have a chance to get up and share something – like anything that can deal with their grief. You see kids bouncing a basketball because it reminds them of playing sports with their dad, or kids playing a song in the background to remember them." Parents and guardians have already arrived to pick up their children at this point, and they can join in on the closing ceremony, expressing their own grief and discovering how their children have learned and grown over the course of a single weekend.

Last month, Comfort Zone came full circle with a new camp for the New York City metro area: This camp catered to the children of the 9/11 first responders who are now, years later, dying of lung diseases and cancers related to their work on 9/11. Other camps are available in other areas after traumatic events. There will always be work for Comfort Zone to do – there will always be loss and grief in this world.

Katie is now 22, a recent college graduate, starting her first job in the adult world. She's working in the nonprofit sector and eagerly awaiting the weekends when she can participate in new sessions of Comfort Zone Camp as a Big Buddy. "I always loved helping people," she told us. "That's always what I wanted to do."

It's not too surprising, then, to read about her father's last moments. Franco Lalama worked on the 64th floor of One World Trade Center. After his building was struck, he worked to get everyone from his office out and on their way down the stairs. He started down the stairs himself.

Then he turned back. He needed to check to make sure no one was left behind. Franco never made it out that day, but his colleagues did, thanks to his help.

There will always be tragedies, and grief will always follow. But there will also always be helpers.

Comfort Zone Camps typically include children ages 7 to 17. Their camps are offered to all children free of charge, and travel scholarships are available in some cases. To learn more, visit www.comfortzonecamp.org.

See memorial tributes to Comfort Zone Camp supporters