I was picking up my boys from their week at Camp Manitou Experience, a camp for grieving boys. I could have sent them home on the bus, but I wanted to see the camp for myself.
My two boys lost their dad three and a half years ago. Since then, I’ve tried to help them get the help they need to process their grief without a lot of success. We do some things that work well, like declaring dad’s death anniversary a family holiday every year and spending the day skiing. And we’ve tried some things that haven’t worked, like lighting candles. Apparently we're just not the candle-lighting type.
The boys seem to be doing pretty well, so maybe I shouldn’t worry. My younger son Colin -- then barely six -- spent the first month after his dad’s death hiding inside his shirt, pulling in his arms and his chin, and wrapping himself in his blankie. We took a trip to New York shortly after dad died and I cringed at the filth being collected on the blanket as Colin dragged it around the city. I knew he needed it, though, so I constantly tucked it around him and into his shirt and pants to try to keep it off the ground.
It’s gotten better since then, but still. He’s only 9, and Ian is 13, and they don’t even fully realize yet what they’ve lost: dad’s presence at high school and college graduations, at their weddings, career advice, advice about fatherhood.
The boys both have good friends, but can they talk to their friends about their dad? Not too long ago Colin pointed out a picture of his dad to a friend who quickly said, “Don’t talk about it. It’s too sad.” Ian’s friends are older and therefore more sensitive but they also don’t get it.
Camp Manitou Experience was my last-ditch effort, and from the minute I stepped foot on the camp to sounds of cheering boys charging into East Pond fully clothed -- the UNH team won the week-long college league competition! -- I knew we had hit the jackpot.
Far from the suffering and downtrodden demeanor you might imagine from 120 or so boys who have lost someone, usually a parent, these boys were a happy and confident brotherhood in the midst of a week-long celebration of boyhood.
It was a week of all the usual camp stuff on speed -- roasting s’mores, stirring chocolate milkshakes in huge vats with lacrosse sticks, fireworks (fireworks!), boating, mini-golf, scavenger hunts, and a pudding slide -- plus daily circle times, activities that connect boys to the person they lost, and a final campfire designed to provide space for sharing emotions and memories of the person they lost.
It's the combination of the two -- the swimsuit portion of the Mr. Manitou competition and the campfire sharing time -- that makes the difference. It's not all about grief. The boys developed camaraderie, and then friendship, and then brotherhood.
After Ian was home from camp he said, “You know, I liked the boys in my cabin, but I wasn’t really good friends with them until the last campfire.” He paused for a minute. “It’s amazing that you can be talking about something sad and then 20 people can be hugging you and you can feel so great.”
Ian was able to talk about his dad with a group and have it be a good, supportive, healing experience. For the first time ever.
Ian wasn’t the only one whose life was changed by Camp Manitou Experience. At the closing ceremony, a hastily assembled but remarkably good natured and talented a cappella group, the Manitones, sang “Change in My Life” to their new-found brothers:
A man gets crazy when his life is all wrong,
And a heart gets weary when it doesn't belong.
When the road gets rocky, Lord, you've got to keep on,
Let the new light come shining on through.
I've been lonely, I've been cheated, I've been misunderstood;
I've been washed up, I've been put down, and told I'm no good.
But with you I belong, 'cause you helped me be strong.
There's a change in my life since you came along.The chanting started as soon as the group finished: “That was awesome!” I was too busy wiping the tears out of my eyes.
Then a group of 14-year-old boys finished me. They presented a beautifully painted wooden tree showing words that tell how they feel about the camp, about each other, and the ways they’ve grown and explained the choice of each word:
Invisible strings. Family. Phantasmagoric. Confidence. Growth. Bonding. Unity. Connection. Hope.
Later, a crush of boys had an impromptu dance party to “Singing in the Shower” in the middle of the cafeteria, deliriously happy to have found each other.
Many boys do arrive at the camp lonely, cheated, and misunderstood. But once they arrive, they are transported to a magical land where they’re not different. Where every single person “gets it.” They have the rare experience of being completely comfortable.
The camp doesn’t cost the boys or their families a cent. Even the daily canteen, which stocks candy bars, sunglasses, and necessities like toothpaste, is free. And, mindful of the fact that many boys’ families are financially as well as emotionally impoverished as a result of their loss, the food is good. I’m talking about lobster rolls (Ian ate five) and barbecue ribs for dinner.
Angels on earth made this happen, mostly volunteers who spend their vacations as camp counselors and their free time doing the endless planning and organizing that makes this happen. And people like you and me, who make Manitou Camps Foundation their charity of choice on Amazon Smile, or write a check. Or both.
Like Ian and Colin, each boy at Camp Manitou Experience has a huge hole in his heart and at camp, they help heal the edges of the hole for each other. That they come out changed is instantly apparent, and I firmly believe they will go through the rest of their lives helping other people come out of hiding, helping to heal their broken hearts.
I walked away from that camp thinking, “We are going to be OK. We might even be great.”