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Day camp marking 20th year Saturday helps kids cope with grief, loss

Anne Polta / Tribune Aidan Wasik, 13, is shown with G.K. Bear, the furry mascot of Rice Hospice's annual grief camp for children that marks its 20th anniversary this weekend.1 / 2
Submitted photo Adult volunteers provide support for bereaved children at Camp G.K. Bear, a day-long event by Rice Hospice that will celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend.2 / 2

WILLMAR — Aidan Wasik was in grade school when his mother, Stacey, died in 2010 from a brain tumor.

The following year he signed up for Camp G.K. Bear, a day-long grief camp held by Rice Hospice twice a year to help children who have experienced the death of a loved one.

"I thought it would be good for him to be around kids," his father, Craig, said. "They process it differently than adults do."

Aidan, now 13, gained so much from Camp G.K. Bear that he kept coming back each year.

It helped him understand grief a little better, he said. "You learn how to deal with it."

Camp G.K. Bear marks its 20th anniversary Saturday with a day of camp that will be followed by the dedication of a special plaque in the Rice Memorial Hospital garden. Past volunteers and staff have been invited to attend.

The free camp remains one of only a few in Minnesota where grieving children can receive education and support tailored just for them.

Although grief is painful at any age, it can be especially difficult for children to cope with all the emotions they're feeling, said Judie Dunlop, social work coordinator and bereavement coordinator for Rice Hospice.

Over the two decades of Camp G.K. Bear, it's the connection with peers that often seems to help the most, she said. "Kids find out that grief is sad and it hurts but it's good to know there are other people who are going through the same thing. They realize that they are not alone in this process."

Ten to 15 children participate each time. They come from a wide area, some from as far away as St. Cloud and the Twin Cities.

Often they have experienced the loss of a grandparent but their bereavement runs "the whole gamut," Dunlop said.

Some have lost a parent or a sibling, she said. "We have had some suicides. We have had car accidents and traumatic events."

Guided by trained facilitators and caring adult volunteers, children spend the day talking about their feelings, listening to music, reading books, doing craft projects.

Making memory boxes has been a favorite activity ever since the first camp was held, Dunlop said. "The kids absolutely love our memory boxes. That's probably the highlight of the day."

And yes, there's a G.K. Bear — an oversized teddy bear that has been the camp mascot and cuddle magnet since day one.

For Aidan Wasik, there was comfort in being able to talk about his feelings in a supportive environment.

"It was good for him," his father said. "It helped me that I knew it was helping him."

Society is getting much better at helping children with grief, Dunlop said. "I think we've come a long way in allowing children to express their feelings without fear."

When bereaved kids receive understanding and support, it can build resiliency that helps them cope with the losses that are inevitable later in life, she said. "If you stuff it and put it away, they'll never learn how to deal with it. ... Traumatic grief can really put a child into a lifelong poor experience."

Some of the youngsters who have graduated from Camp G.K. Bear are now grown up with children of their own, said Mary Beth Potter, Rice Hospice director.

"Kids who suffer any kind of loss mature differently because of what they've been through," she said.

The camp helps fill a niche that might not otherwise be addressed, she said. "If the need is there, we want to meet that need. It's been a great thing for Willmar and surrounding communities. Even though it may only be a day, it has an impact for years to come."

Grief camp info

WILLMAR — Camp G.K. Bear will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Lakeland Health Center auditorium in Willmar.

The free one-day camp, hosted by Rice Hospice, is for children K-6 who have experienced the loss of a significant person in their life. It is offered twice a year, in the spring and fall.

For more information, call Rice Hospice at 320-231-4450.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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