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Camp helps children face grief

Joey Merten sat at a card table Thursday with a marking pen and a construction-paper butterfly.

While the other children drew pictures to express their emotions, the 9-year-old Port Richey boy used words, sometimes misspelled, to show his feelings.

"I felt sad and angry, and I wasn't very happy," he wrote. "I was mad."

Joey misses his grandmother, who died two years ago, and his grandfather, who died last year. On Thursday, he and about 30 other Pasco County children who have lost a loved one spent eight hours in a bereavement day camp. It was a chance to explore their grief, learn about it and move beyond it.

"It's a journey from the past to the future," said Louise Teague, who coordinates the Children's Assistance Program for the Hernando-Pasco Hospice. "It helps them to see that they're not alone."

Or, as one of the camp's songs puts it:

We're a rainbow made of children.

We're an army singin' our song.

There's no losses that can stop us.

Rainbow love is much too strong.

The day camp, held at Quality Inn on U.S. 19 in New Port Richey, was for children 6 to 10. Many of the activities _ sing-alongs, swimming, games, and arts and crafts _ are of the type found in other day camps for children.

These, however, have a theme: steppingstones. Each stone represents one of seven stages of grief through which a survivor goes.

Children are asked to identify with a character named Buster the Bear, who must survive on his own after his mother dies. The bear, represented by a large stuffed animal, learns to let others help him, to feel good about doing things himself and to help others.

Adult and teenage, counselors help the children through the lessons and activities. The "trust" session is an obstacle course, for example, in which children lead blindfolded partners around a room. The "feeling" session matches emotions to M&Ms of different colors, and a child may eat one of the candies after expressing a corresponding sentiment.

"Each child goes through some counseling and assessment before things get started," Teague said. "There's always a sort of preparation."

The CAP day camp is free to all participants.

For information

The Hernando-Pasco Hospice, with offices in Hudson, New Port Richey, Spring Hill and Zephyrhills, is a not-for-profit agency offering home-based medical and support services for terminally ill patients and their families. For details on its bereavement programs, call (813) 863-7971 or (800) 486-8784.