'A Packet of Love': COVID-19 Leads to Camp Francis in an Envelope

During the dark days of winter, Mary Pat Smith began hand stitching a flock of birds. Each bird has on its breast a heart cut from shirts that had belonged to her late husband, Jerry.

Mary Pat’s friends suggested she try knitting or quilting or another hobby that wasn’t making bird after bird. But Mary Pat stitched on. Her flock grew to 90 birds by the time spring, and coronavirus, arrived.

Mary Pat didn’t know it then, but her birds were destined to comfort grieving children in this unusually challenging time.

Every year, Benefis Peace Hospice’s beloved Camp Francis provides a sanctuary for children who have lost a loved one and a place for them to share their feelings about loss and learn to cope.

For 2020, the camp is canceled to protect campers, their families, and volunteers from coronavirus spread and because the U.S. Forest Service closed Camp Rotary, which hosts Camp Francis, through June.

Instead, volunteers put together “Camp Francis in an Envelope” to send to would-be campers. The packages included Mary Pat’s birds, the annual camp bandana, a piece of a collective art project, stories, activities, and other things to remind children they aren’t alone. Volunteers also recorded messages of hope so campers can see their faces and hear their voices.

“Camp is such a magical time for kids to learn about grief and to support families,” Camp Director Kathy Van Tighem said. “All of us, the volunteers and staff, are very disappointed we had to cancel, but we still want to give children this healing opportunity as a bridge of hope as we look to 2021.”

Volunteers from across the country worked hard to design interactive care packages that would be supportive and uplifting but wouldn’t add to the burden of families already challenged by months of homeschooling.

“One of the most important aspects of this is that it’s a springboard to connecting with children who have been to camp and who are new,” Kathy said.

Volunteers also received what one called a “packet of love,” saying it made her smile and cry.

Kevin Sukut, children’s bereavement coordinator for Benefis Peace Hospice, said the virus threat has made bereavement services more difficult, but the work carries on.

He still makes check-in calls and helps struggling families connect with counselors. Children’s and parents’ grief support groups will resume in the fall. Darcy’s Hope, a camp for grieving teenagers, is still planned for October, if campers and volunteers can gather safely. The adopt-a-bear and quilt giveaway programs continue. Kevin expects family gatherings such as the holiday party and Peak Night to continue.

“Camp is such a magical time for kids to learn about grief and to support families”

–Kathy Van Tighem, camp director

Hope matters now more than ever, and this year’s camp-in-a-box theme is “Wings of Hope.”

Perfect, Mary Pat says.

Her husband, Jerry, was Mr. Camp Francis. Orphaned by a drunk driver at age 7, Jerry called volunteering at the camp the most important work he’d ever done. The work filled a hole in his heart from his own childhood loss.

As Jerry was treated for cancer, birds were a symbol of hope for the family. They quoted to each other poet Emily Dickinson: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

Can you help?

Your support for the Children’s Bereavement Program at Benefis Peace Hospice helps the magic happen all year long. Contributions to Benefis Foundation allow grieving children and their families to take part in the program for free.

If you know a family with a child who could benefit from Benefis bereavement services after the loss of a loved one, please contact Kevin Sukut at kevinsukut@benefis.org or (406) 455-3065.