Each year, during the third week in June, a little bit of magic happens out in the mountains near Monarch.
A group of children, all grieving the death of a parent, sibling, grandparent or other family member, come together in a safe place where they express the array of emotions they are feeling. They laugh, cry and share stories about their loved ones. They learn they are not alone, that other children also have significant losses. They learn it’s OK to feel the hurt.
This is Camp Francis.
“It is a place where I can make new friends and really let out my feelings instead of holding them in,” said a 12-year-old camper, who lost his mother to cancer.
In 2010, 24 children, ages 6 to 12, enjoyed the wonderful activities – everything from tie-dyeing to beating on drums – throughout the week themed “Getting through the Storm.” The theme was chosen because the cycle of a storm can be compared with the stages of grief. Five of the campers had lost a mother, 16 had lost a father, three had lost grandparents and several were suffering multiple losses.
"The kids are able to let down their guard, share openly and connect with other kids who know what they are going through," said Children's Bereavement Coordinator Kelly Keilman.
Camp Francis is part of the Children’s Bereavement Program, offered through Benefis Peace Hospice of Montana. The camp, which is a free service to families, began in 1993 and has grown over the years thanks to support from Benefis as well as the many generous donors who give to Camp Francis, purchase wish-list items or support endowments associated with the camp through the Benefis Foundation.
The magic that happens at Camp Francis is also possible because of the many volunteers who give their time, energy and love to make those five days in the mountains extra special for the children. Nearly 40 adult and teen volunteers spent that week in June at the Camp Rotary campground helping with games, activities, drumming, story sessions - everything that is woven into the grief work that's done throughout the week. The children have a camp counselor or volunteer with them at all times, even if they just run back to their bunk to grab a pillow or stuffed animal.
In addition, a small army of volunteers spent the week taking photos of the kids and putting together individualized memory books for each of them to take home at the end of the week. Another small army cooked a thank-you meal for everyone who gave of their time.
These volunteers are professional people who close up shop to spend the week at the camp; parents who’ve suffered the loss of a child; teenagers who attended Camp Francis once upon a time; and regular folks who just spent a short time at the camp and got hooked. They like how it feels to help out at camp. They do it for the kids.
“One of the things that happens at camp each year is what we call the ‘Camp Francis Miracle,’” said Dr. Chris Southall, a psychologist who’s been volunteering for more than 10 years. “Usually one or more of the kids comes in really shut down, very sad. And every year those kids blossom by the end of camp. It’s so rewarding – we see these kids transform."