Kids grieve in different ways than adults when they lose loved ones, said Amy Hicks, a counselor within the Cleveland City School system and founder of Helping Paws Healing Hearts.
That’s why she helped start a weekend day camp for children facing such losses.
In order to address their needs, Hicks started holding Healing Heart Camps that give them a positive environment in which to play, learn and be able to talk about the people they lost.
One of the main goals, she said, is to help them realize that other kids like them know what it is like to feel sad when a parent, other relative or friend dies.
“Every kid that walks away from the camp feels like they’re not the only one,” Hicks said.
Helping Paws Healing Hearts is a nonprofit organization Hicks founded in 2008. She takes therapy dogs to schools, after-school programs and other places to help children learn character lessons and assist with one-on-one counseling sessions of children dealing with a variety of issues. Her “co-workers” are her three dogs she and her husband rescued from animal shelters. The canines are named Larry, Daryl and Addie.
Along the way, she started holding weekend “grief camps” because she noticed that losing a loved one made a large impact on her students’ lives. The camps occur once each school semester and are free to any students wishing to participate.
One afternoon, a few campers from past camps gathered at Arnold Elementary School to reminisce about their experiences with the camp.
“Before the camp, it was hard to find people to talk to,” said Stella Sherrill, a 10-year-old Arnold Elementary School student who had lost her father. “When you go to the camp, you can realize they’ve gone through what you’ve gone through.”
Her 9-year-old sister, Anna Sherrill, said her favorite part of the camp was participating in the art projects and getting to spend time with the dogs.
“It’s a place where you have fun too,” Stella said. “It’s not all about talking about who you lost.”
In addition to talking about their loved ones, the camp offers activities such as team-building games and art therapy to help kids express themselves and get to know some of their peers who have been dealing with some of the same things.
“The play time gives them time to have fun, a ‘mental break’ from talking about their sadness,” said Shelly Tullier, a school counselor who works in McMinn County and volunteers with the camps.
Tullier said she remembers her grief when her own mother passed away, so she believes it must be even more difficult for someone who is young to experience a similar loss. Hicks echoed that sentiment, saying she has dealt with grief in her own life and tells people she loves the camp for that reason.
“They say, ‘How do you love a grief camp?’ I love to know that we’re able to help them get through it,” Hicks said.
When you ask children who have been part of the camp what they learned there, some, like Stella, say the biggest thing is realizing that they are not alone.
Others, like Elliot Brock, a 9-year-old student from E.L. Ross Elementary, say they become more comfortable sharing their experiences with others.
Elliot said she lost her grandma and the camp helped her to be able to talk with her peers more openly because of its relaxed setting and dogs like Larry being there to offer silent encouragement.
“When I first walked in, I was shy,” Brock said. “But when I saw the dogs, they cheered me up.”
The next Healing Hearts Camp is set to take place at Arnold Elementary School March 15 and 16. The deadline for registration is Feb. 28. The camp is limited to 25 children between the ages of 6 and 12.
“I want to keep the camps small so they feel like they can share openly,” Hicks said.
To learn more about or register for the upcoming camp, visit HelpingPawsHealingHearts.com or call 423-595-5698.