Camp New Dawn had a record-breaking 21st year in 2015 when 79 campers, 15 families and 124 volunteers participated in this summer grief retreat hosted by Compass Regional Hospice. The healing retreat is held every summer at Camp Pecometh in Centreville.
Camp New Dawn kicks off on Saturday, when the kids and teens, ages seven through 17, check in. The opening sessions set the stage for a weekend of fun and friendship with activities that help the campers remember those who have died and talk about their losses.
Rhonda Knotts, MSCC, director of Camp New Dawn and grief services coordinator for Compass Regional Hospice, explains, “Kids of all ages interact at the beginning of the weekend as they participate in therapeutic workshops. They get to see that other young people understand what it feels like to lose someone they love.”
Therapeutic workshops are designed to give the campers options that meet their interests and skills. Some workshops revolve around music. Others use art and physical activities. “All of the workshops offer a lesson that the campers can take from the experience,” Knotts says. “For example, using a sling shot the children learn to let go of loneliness, negative emotions and thoughts that linger following the death of a sibling, parent, friend or other special person.”
After working with campers of different ages, the children move into age-specific support groups. “The opening workshops get campers ready to talk with their peers about their experiences of loss,” Knotts explains. “The volunteers who lead these age-specific groups are trained to create an environment that is safe, loving and comfortable. They do a great job of connecting activities to the personal story each camper shares.”
Each year Camp New Dawn introduces new elements to enhance the experience. In 2015 the family camp began a day earlier so that adults could have 24 hours with each other before the children joined them for two days of workshops and play.
“The adults who attended the family retreat in 2014 asked if they could have a day on their own,” says Knotts. “We take this kind of feedback to heart and use it to continually raise the bar on the camp experience.”
Camp New Dawn is one of the programs offered through the Compass Regional Hospice Hope & Healing Center. Knotts says, “The grief support programs we offer recognize that grief looks different for each person. We also know that when we care for one member of a family we are caring for the whole family. Our job is to respect each person’s ability to navigate the grief journey.”
Volunteers make Camp New Dawn possible. Only a handful of Compass Regional Hospice staff are at Camp Pecometh for the weekend. In addition to Knotts these staffers include Courtney Williams, assistant director of Camp New Dawn; Rev. Nancy Greenwell, chaplain; Shelly Griffith, RN, camp nurse; and Ann OConnor and Wayne Larrimore, grief counselors.
The most visible volunteers are the buddies who are paired up with a camper. Other volunteers lead workshops, art activities and outdoors events. Another group of volunteers welcome campers, manage registration, set up and break down workshops, prepare and serve food, and make sure that everyone is where they need to be.
“We depend on volunteers to tend to every detail of camp. They also care for each other in the volunteer respite cabin during these busy, heart-opening days,” explains Courtney Williams, who is also manager of volunteer and professional services for Compass Regional Hospice.
“We look for people who have a variety of life experiences to volunteer for Camp New Dawn. The most important criteria is having a desire to help,” says Williams. “All volunteers are screened and trained to work within the mission of Camp New Dawn.”
A special group of volunteers are the Peers as Leaders or PALs, former campers who have completed at least one year of high school. Williams explains, “These amazing young people, who have personal knowledge of how grief effects children and teens, work closely with the adult team leaders and buddies.”
The volunteer corps also includes a group known as Campatiers, young people who are not yet old enough to volunteer as a PAL, but who would like to give back because of what they learned by going to camp. “Campetiers receive direction from a more experienced adult volunteer,” Williams explains. “They support camp by helping with daily tasks and activity preparation.”
The Camp New Dawn organizers strive to be inclusive so that children of all abilities can participate. Williams explains, “Our volunteer buddies make it possible for the children to have fun with loving, caring adults while their parents and caregivers have time to care for themselves at the family retreat.”
The cost to operate Camp New Dawn far exceeds the registration fee charged for each camper and family. “We keep the cost of this program low – $30 per camper and $75 per family. No one is ever turned away due to inability to pay,” explains Knotts. “We depend on the generosity of the community and on grants to underwrite the majority of the cost of this program.”
In 2015 Camp New Dawn was supported by several community fundraisers. Most notably, the Farm to Table dinner hosted by Paige Evans, John Evans and Zeke Warner raised $23,000 for Camp New Dawn. Many members of the community donated materials, art supplies and snacks used throughout the weekend.
The planning and continual improvement that goes into Camp New Dawn earned Compass Regional Hospice a spot on the program at the National Bereavement Camp Conference sponsored by the Moyer Foundation. At the conference held in November in Washington, DC, Knotts and Williams presented a workshop entitled “How to grow a forest with just one seed.”
Knotts explains, “We accepted the invitation to speak because we believe that we are the only grief retreat in the country that encompasses five different programs – the kids segment, the teen segment, the mini-camp for the little children, the adult retreat and the family retreat. The seed of Camp New Dawn, which began as a weekend retreat just for kids 21 years ago, has grown into a grief program that meets the needs of people of all ages and stages of grief.”
Williams adds, “Our presentation at the National Bereavement Camp Conference showed how we are able to offer each separate program in the same retreat weekend through training, oversight and a unique organizational structure. We also shared activities and modalities we have found to be successful.”
Planning is underway for Camp New Dawn 2016. The retreat for children and teens ages seven through 17 will be held at Camp Pecometh Saturday, August 13 through Monday, August 15. On Monday, August 15, children ages four through six are welcome to attend day camp. The family retreat begins on Sunday, August 14 for the adults and continues on Monday, August 15 through Tuesday, August 16 for the adults and their children.
Teen campers and their mentors pose with the spray-painted van that is one of the most popular Camp New Dawn activities every year.