LITTLE BELT MOUNTAINS – "The wings of hope carry me home," sang Matthew Marsolek of the musical group Drum Brothers. "We are only a moment in time. … All of life, it comes and goes …"
Children and volunteers at Camp Francis joined Matthew and the Drum Brothers in finding rhythms and their singing voices. They learned a centering beat and ways to use their use their own bodies as percussion instruments.
The Drum Brothers are an annual highlight of Benefis Peace Hospice's beloved Camp Francis, which provides a sanctuary for children who have lost a loved one. Last year, camp was a virtual affair amid COVID-19, but this summer campers again gathered in person.
This year, 30 campers came from a region spanning Big Sandy to Billings for the camp, along with eight teen counselors and 62 volunteers from five states and five Montana counties.
On the first day of camp, campers call into the circle the person they lost. They share memories and reflect on how their lives changed after their loss. They put into words what happened – a first for some new campers, Camp Director Kathy Van Tighem said.
"We have return campers who help make it OK for the new kids to share their stories. They talk about the relief they felt last year and how it works," she said.
Camp continues with a focus on feelings and a day devoted to self-care and coping strategies such as journaling, art, music, play, rest, stillness, and yoga. The finale is about celebrating and reinvesting in life.
More recently, camp leaders have added education for parents and guardians to explain what their child has experienced at camp and some open-ended questions to keep the conversation going.
Organizers honored camp photographer Matt Strissel of Lewistown for 20 years of volunteering at Camp Francis. As he grieved for his mother, Nellie, who died in a car wreck, Matt, then 12, found comfort and hope at camp and now he pays it back.
"The big thing for me was on the first day realizing I'm not the only one who lost a parent. There are other kids who shared the experience," he said. "Camp was learning the ways to grieve and get through the loss and that life can still be good and be OK after the loss."
Matt's favorite moment is the camp dance because "It's so fun to see first-time campers transformed from sad and shy to happy and joyful. By the last night, they're beaming and having the greatest time."
Matt became a teen camp counselor and then adult volunteer. This summer, Matt attended his 20th Camp Francis.
"Helping other kids through their loss helped me with my own," he said. "You get just as much out of it being a counselor."
When Matt lost his dad, Bill, a few years ago to cancer, his Camp Francis community rallied around him.
"It really helped me get through that," he said. "Before I was 30, both my parents were gone. Camp basically saved my life."
Though camp lasts just a few days, Matt said the ripple effects are felt throughout a child's life.
Camp is free 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.