Dr. Gopi Nallaiyan founded the Little Moppet Heart Foundation with the sole purpose to cater to the needs of children with congenital heart defects.
Twice a year, children between six and 17 who have lost a significant loved one gather at Camp Hope for a weekend of support.
The free camp provides a safe space for grieving children to connect with others that understand their experience and to engage in activities from rock climbing and swimming to creating art and roasting marshmallows.
Based in Northern California, the camp has changed the lives of hundreds of children. Camp Hope launched in 2003, three years after founder Lynn Hebert lost her husband.
“When he passed away in 2000, I had two little boys; a two year old and a four year old. The four year old had a really hard time,” says Hebert. “I knew that right away I needed to get him into a support group.”
Hebert found a program for her son, and he attended for a year.
“He got a lot out of it. And then of course I knew that I needed to go [to a support group], but I didn't want to. I knew I’d be sitting there crying all the time,” says Hebert. “I must say that group was a saver for me. It was very hard to go every time, but it was really good for me.”
Today, the camp has expanded to include one weekend each spring and another each fall. (Photo: Camp Hope)Reflecting on how much the group she attended helped during her grieving process — and how much her son’s group helped him — Hebert decided that she wanted others to feel that same support and began to organize the first Camp Hope.
She contacted the managers of a summer camp and asked about availability outside of the summer months when the camp was usually occupied. Camp Arroyo, a 138-acre parkland outside Livermore, California, (just an hour southeast of San Francisco) was available.
The first camp had about 10-15 kids in attendance, Hebert recalls. Today, the camp has expanded to include one weekend each spring and another each fall. The camps now host about 80 children each session.
“Now we have so many kids. It's unbelievable,” says Hebert. “And unfortunately we always have people on waitlists.”
Children from first grade through high school are welcome at the camp, where volunteer counselors — who have also experienced the loss of loved ones — engage the kids in art activities that help them process their grief, play games, and enjoy time outdoors.
Art activities include making memory boxes to honor their loved ones, and masks that represent the emotions children share with others and the emotions and stories they keep to themselves.
“We can’t do grief all the time, so we have the pool, and the rock wall, and the swimming, and the hikes, and the s'mores,” says Hebert. “The whole reason we do it is so these kids don't think that they're the only kids that are going through this.”
Hebert says that most of the children who attend discover the program through word of mouth.
Fundraising is the same; Camp Hope doesn’t seek grants and simply relies on donations to cover operating costs. The camp facilities are provided free of cost by the Taylor Family Foundation, which oversees the property and manages camps at other times throughout the year.
There is never pressure for anyone to donate or pay for attending camp. Hebert is committed to keeping it free so kids who might not have access to support can find it at Camp Hope. She says that families of the children who attend donate if they can, and when others hear about the program from attendees, others donate to the program as well.
“The kids get so much out of it,” says Hebert. “When they come in, it's amazing how apprehensive they are, and by the time camp is over, they don't want to leave.”
Dani Burlison has been a staff writer at a Bay Area alt-weekly and a contributor at Ms. Magazine, Yes! Magazine, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Tribune, KQED, Made Local Magazine, WIRED, Utne, Shareable, and more. She has a Master’s Degree in Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community from New College of California and teaches memoir writing at Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County.Learn More
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