Camp Hometown Heroes is a national, free, week-long residential summer camp for children and siblings ages seven to 17 of fallen U.S. service members. These are active or inactive military heroes who died in combat or as the result of accident, ill-ness, or suicide. Camp Hometown Heroes provides a safe and caring environment where the children attending have the opportunity to openly discuss their feelings and experiences in connection with losing their loved ones. Support can be found around every corner here — among the campers, in the pediatric grief specialists on staff, in art and music therapy, and in optional discussion groups. It is a place where the youngest of heroes can begin or continue the healing process among peers who understand and share their grief. Though bonded through sadness, here they can also find joy and acceptance and hope.
We sat down with Camp Hometown Heroes Camp Director Andrew Gappa and Director of Outreach Deb Paschke to discuss the program, the challenges of serving grieving children through camp, and the wonderful surprises and revelations that have manifested along the way.
How did Camp Hometown Heroes come about?
Paschke: Camp Hometown Heroes is an offshoot of the nonprofit Hometown Heroes, which philanthropist Jim Kacmarcik began after 9/11 to support first responders, the military community, and any children and families in need. It was realized there was little in place to serve children who had suffered the great loss of someone who had served their country in the military. So Jim and Neil Willenson, who had also started Camp Heartland years earlier for children affected by HIV/AIDS, founded Camp Hometown Heroes in 2013. People embraced the idea right away. These kids are heroes on their own. They’ve made lifelong sacrifices that they didn’t sign up for. They were just drafted.
How do campers who attend Camp Hometown Heroes hear about it?
Gappa: A lot of it is word of mouth. Parents hear about it from other parents. Moms tell other moms. In the military community, there is a close-knit group and support system for both kids and parents.
What’s important to know when the campers first arrive?
Gappa: You have to learn the campers’ backgrounds and understand that it’s tough for them to open up. In their lives at home they don’t necessarily want to share that they’ve lost someone. It’s so hard to tell other kids in school and other families in their communities that they lost their parent or brother/sister due to military service. Sometimes kids may not know how to react or don’t understand the emotions of losing someone close.
Paschke: There are kids who come to us who have never dealt with their loss. To get them comfortable makes a big difference.
What do you find most striking about your campers when they leave camp versus when they arrived?
Gappa: Hands down the friendships that they make. Watching our new campers come to camp is exciting to me. They’re very nervous about the experience. This is all diff used quickly because our camp is specifically designed to have the first 24 hours focused on building relationships in the cabins, to open up and build those friendships. When you see campers of all ages hugging goodbye at the end of the week, that’s an amazing thing.
Sometimes they’re already exchanging phone numbers and profile names before the week is even over. Knowing they’re going home with these connections really puts a smile on my face — knowing that we’re succeeding in our mission to help kids grow and connect with other kids who have gone through similar experiences.
Paschke: I never got to go to camp as a kid. It was a beautiful realization how special a place camp can be. The bond that is formed at a camp like this was a revelation. These people stay friends for the rest of their lives.
Beyond the traditional camp activities like archery and swimming, you oﬀer therapy activities, including art, to address the kids’ grief and promote healing through pediatric grief counseling. Your partner in this is Kyle’s Korner, an organization dedicated to helping grieving children, teens, and their families who are coping with the death of a loved one. Can you describe a couple of those activities?
Paschke: Campers can create a quilt square in memory of the person they’ve lost. One little girl made a square with a roller coaster on it because she used to ride them with her dad. We put all those squares together each year and make all-camp family quilts.
They make papier-mâché masks. On the outside they write words that describe what people see. On the inside they write words describing how they really feel.
What about specific opportunities for therapeutic discussions?
Paschke: There’s chill time when the campers can just sit and be with each other and talk. They have reflections at the end of the night. During mealtime they have the option to take their lunch and go to a space where they can just talk. We also have honor ceremonies where the kids float a candle in memory of the person they’ve lost.
We heal their hearts. It’s very simple. I don’t mean to say the lives they have and what they face is simple, but that you just give to these children. That is simple.
What are your hopes and goals for the future of Camp Hometown Heroes?
Gappa: Hometown Heroes is the organization. Camp Hometown Heroes is part of that. Looking at it from that angle, we’re hoping that we can expand and partner with other nonprofit organizations who are doing similar things. We want to be a camp for organizations that want to partner with us on grief issues and/or with kids in need. We want to have a bigger presence in our community and across the country.
Paschke: We’re also putting into place a leadership component to the camp. Campers will do training and then some more advanced training as they get a little older. This is inclusive of the 17 age limit. At that point they are poised to be wonderful counselors. Who better to mentor younger children who have faced the same challenges?
What else would you like people to know?
Gappa: One, we’re always looking for volunteer counselors. We run on volunteers. We even need help to wash dishes in the kitchen, set up games, or help us clean the cabins. It’s all about giving the kids a second home so they get to come back home each summer. And two, I’m very blessed to work with Hometown Heroes and to be a part of the mission. I’ll never be able to fully understand what our campers are going through, but to have the opportunity to help in some small way really is an honor. It’s all about faith and abundance, and letting people know we’re here to care for them no matter what the circumstances are.
What advice would you give to other camps that are considering a focus on campers who may be struggling emotionally due to some form of trauma?
Paschke: Bring in people who are trained or who have a background in how to help. Bring in people who are passionate about what you’re doing and train them or at least make them familiar with your philosophy and how you are hoping to bring about healing to help whoever is attending.
Have compassion. You want people who will take the time to just sit down and listen. You don’t have to talk. Sometimes that’s what these kids are missing, someone who will listen and someone who understands. I can’t overemphasize the value of empathy, just knowing how the other person feels. In their regular lives, people don’t get it. They can’t get it because they haven’t been through it.
Photo courtesy of Camp Hometown Heroes.