For Grieving Children, Glow of Camp Francis Warms Hearts for a Lifetime

LITTLE BELT MOUNTAINS – Rambunctious children became solemn as Camp Francis Director Kathy Van Tighem prepared them for a special ceremony of remembrance.

"We welcome you into a strong and sacred circle," Kathy told campers. "This is about the light we create together and the love we have here in this place."

The 31 campers and scores of teen and adult volunteers at Camp Francis gathered in a circle in a darkened lodge around a table of photos of their lost loved ones. Beads representing memories were part of a candlelit chandelier that campers made.

One by one, campers named those whose loss they are grieving and lit a luminaria.

"I light this candle in honor of my mom."

     "... for my dad, Tom."

     "... for my mom, Amy."

     "… for my papa, Robert."

     "... for my sister, Daisy."

     "... for my dad, my uncle, and my grandparents."

     "… for my friend, Abby."

The luminaria lighting is an annual highlight of Benefis Peace Hospice's beloved Camp Francis, which provides a sanctuary for children who have lost a loved one.

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The youngest of the campers, who range in age from 6 to 12, came to the microphone with a cabin leader or teen volunteer and a stuffed animal. One boy dove into Kathy's arms to sob as his cabin leader spoke on his behalf.   

With each person honored, the room became brighter.

"Camp Francis is more than a place in the mountains, it's a place in your heart," Kathy said. "Camp Francis will be part of you wherever you go for the rest of your life."

Laura Gilligan is a medical student from Great Falls and seven-year Camp Francis volunteer who was 13 when she lost her mom. She attended Darcy's Hope, the bereavement camp for teenagers in the fall. She said the children and other volunteers inspire her to keep returning to camp. The luminaria ceremony is among her favorite camp moments every year.

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"There's just something about the light the kids create lighting their candles," Laura said. "It's hard to explain to people who haven't experienced camp, but there's a lot of power in what we do here."

Campers honored Kathy and her dad, Dave, for 20 years of service to Camp Francis.

"As soon as I experienced camp, I knew it was something unique, something purposeful," Kathy said. "Every ceremony, every craft, every conversation, and every presentation was powerful and aimed to walk with kids through their grief and allow them the opportunity to experience it and to learn from it."

Kathy began attending camp as a volunteer when she learned about Hospice during her grandfather's final days. Dave volunteered to help build bat houses and now comes every year. Her mother, Patty, also is a Children's Bereavement volunteer, and her niece is the camp nurse.

"Camp started as a great idea to provide a place for kids to heal, but it's grown into a place where families can grow and come together," Kathy said. "By teaching the kids how to grieve, they set the stage for the adults in their lives to know it's OK to grieve and to transform that gut-wrenching pain into celebrating good memories of their loved one."

Campers' families are trying to keep their families afloat after their loss and may suppress their grief amid their to-do lists and desire to "protect" their children from their own pain.

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"Likewise, we have kids who say, 'I don't want Mom to worry about me because she has so much to deal with since Dad died.' They're as protective of us as we are of them," Kathy said. "Learning how to be sad and supportive together is one of the best things families can walk away knowing."

Kathy has seen grateful parents and grandparents honor their lost loved ones and the healing journey at Camp Francis by becoming volunteers themselves.

Camp is free for every camper because of donors and volunteers. Contributions to the Children's Bereavement Program at Benefis Peace Hospice help children all year long. Click here to learn more about the program.

The support of donors means volunteers can focus on the life-changing work of camp instead of fundraising, Kathy said. "I wish every donor could experience camp. We are so thankful for the people who make camp possible."