WEEKI WACHEE — At the corner of the table, in a chair apart from other children, 6-year-old Chloe Lieber sat gluing large plastic jewels and foam board sea creatures on a memory box around a picture of her deceased grandfather.
Chloe remembered how her grandfather, Steve, loved to watch the History Channel, but would change the TV to Cartoon Network for her. They sometimes went to the beach together to pick seashells for her grandmother.
"He was the bestest man I ever knew," she said.
Chloe was one of 19 children at an annual one-day camp that provides support to elementary-age children who have lost loved ones. The camp is sponsored by HPH Hospice, a nonprofit organization that provides palliative care in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties. There is no cost for enrollment and the camp is open to anyone in the community.
Some activities, such as coloring and swimming, were just for fun. Others, including decorating memory boxes and sharing photos, were designed to help the children cope with grief.
One of these was an interactive group activity in which the campers were divided by different factors like gender or whether the death of their loved one was expected or sudden, such as from an accident or overdose.
Twelve of the children were grieving from sudden deaths.
This exercise, led by Children's Assistance Program (CAP) counselors, worked to show campers their similarities and that they are not alone.
"Children come to camps thinking no one is going through the same thing they are going through," hospice volunteer Paula Haydon ,65, said. "They are suffering in a very similar way and they start to open up."
For 13 years, Haydon has volunteered for HPH Hospice and said one memory from a camp several years ago sticks in her mind.
She watched as one child silently participated in the program for almost the whole day.
"By the end of the day he started smiling at everyone and talking. It took him all day to get there," Haydon said. "He didn't think anyone could understand. That felt like an accomplishment."
But the children are not the only ones who benefit from camp. This is 18-year-old Arie Matthew's first year volunteering there.
Last year, she was a camper.
When she was 8, Matthew's mother died of alcohol poisoning. For almost a decade, Matthew said she didn't have a way to cope with the grief.
"It's hard for me to listen to (the children) and what they are saying because I know what they're feeling," Matthew said. "They're so little."
While Matthew said that volunteering at the camp sessions brings up hurtful memories, she keeps returning for the support system. She looks forward to continuing to work for the hospice while studying music education at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Because of its nonprofit status, the hospice relies on volunteers and donations to continue its programing.
In 2011, volunteers in Hernando County alone worked more than 43,500 hours for the hospice. Every year, Glen Lakes Country Club donates its clubhouse and food for the Hernando-area children's camp.
HPH Hospice also organizes camps for teenagers and provides child and teen bereavement counseling.
"Children may not have a frame of reference for understanding, but they still feel all the feelings adult do," CAP counselor Nilda Sessler, 60, said. "They usually leave happier than when they got here."
While McKenna Snyder, 8, decorated her memory box with flowers and a large sun, she remembered her great-grandfather and uncle. McKenna also smiled and said she liked the camp.
"At first I was a little nervous. I didn't want to go," McKenna said. "It's actually fun!"
Laura Herrera can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.