As a provisional, I worried that my first month was representative of what my whole experience would be in the Junior League of Memphis (JLM). Was I going to spend the entire year (or worse, my entire membership) looking anxiously for familiar faces at general membership meetings, trying to keep my calendar straight (am I supposed to be going to Hutchison? Botanic Gardens? Someone’s house?), and waving goodbye to the majority of my Monday evenings for the next twelve months? My friends who were JLM actives raved to me about how much I would enjoy the close friendships, the sense of community, and the difference I would feel I was making in Memphis. But the only feeling that seemed to emerge during the first month was “overwhelmed.” New people, new information, and new commitments—everything was amplified.
It wasn’t until the September general membership meeting when something clicked. The ensemble from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra joined Angela Hamblen (from the Kemmons Wilson Center for Good Grief) for a reading of her book “What’s So Good About Grief, Anyway?” From there, I was sold. The book reminded me so much of what I had gone through as a child through the loss of my dad, and I realized that I wanted nothing more than to be a part of Camp Good Grief, which is an annual bereavement camp for children ages 6-12. Suddenly, all of my involvement in the JLM made sense. I was no longer overwhelmed; rather, I was ENGAGED. I threw myself into my commitments and enjoyed everything from tours of Regional Medical Center to extra shifts at the Repeat Boutique. I bided my time patiently, and when it came time to list our preferences for placement for the next year, I put Camp Good Grief at the top of my list. Imagine my excitement when we received our placements—and mine read “CAMP GOOD GRIEF.” Suddenly, however, what I had been hoping for now struck a kind of anxious excitement within me that I couldn’t shake. Now I actually had to go!
As I went through volunteer training with the other women in my placement, I realized that Camp Good Grief was everything I had hoped for from joining the JLM. It gave me the chance to connect with and enjoy the company of like-motivated and service-minded women, as well as the opportunity to make an individual impact in my community. I would come to find, however, that the individual impact that was most significant was the one made on me…
Candidly? Camp Good Grief was hard. Really hard. It required a massive amount of physical and emotional effort, and I found that the end of each day resulted in a battle between using what little energy I had left to shower off the sweat/sunscreen/lake water/chlorine/bug spray layers or using that same limited energy to eat dinner (the latter usually won). During my drive to the first day of camp, I fought the excitement, anxiety, and vague nausea that seemed to have gripped me tightly. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I cry the entire time? I work with adolescents, so I’m pretty accustomed to mood swings, social politics, and students who act like everything is life or death (you remember being a teenager). These kids, however—their processes and complexities really are life and death. As I arrived, I realized that it was everything you expect from a traditional camp—and then some. There were songs and candy and swimming and games! But the best part of the three days of Camp Good Grief (besides pancakes on a stick) was the feeling you had every time you experienced a victory, no matter how small. Maybe it was a terrified kid finally conquering their fear of the water slide, or the first time your camper grabbed your hand, or watching as a child fully embraced their emotions at the memorial service. Each of these happened to all of us, and I think I can speak for all of the buddies and floaters when I say that each felt monumental in that moment.
My experience at Camp Good Grief has changed me both professionally and personally. As the Associate Director of College Guidance at St. George’s Independent School, I work with children throughout various points in their high school career, which all too frequently involves the ups and downs that come with being a teenager. During our first training, Angela reminded us, “a bereaved person’s life is like a piece of paper, upon which every caring adult has the dangerous opportunity to leave a mark.” That quote from Dr. Alan Wolfelt stayed with me throughout my entire Camp Good Grief experience. I was constantly mindful of engaging the children positively, being aware and considerate of our conversations, and helping them balance enjoying camp with processing their grief. But now that mindset is also inextricably linked with my daily work, as I employ that same approach with my students. I think my Camp Good Grief experience made me a more considerate listener, compassionate supporter, and resilient volunteer. I learned that you can find strength in vulnerability, fortitude in asking for help, and I embraced the difference that even the most minute connections can make in a child’s life (and in mine). I am counting down the days until next year’s camp. Even if it is not my placement, they will have to close the gates to keep me out—I’ll be there!!
I would be remiss not to give a shout-out to a few events on the horizon that benefit Camp Good Grief (as the camp is free to the participants, but is significantly more than free to facilitate…):
- Baptist Art of Caring is this Saturday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Memphis Botanic Gardens. There are some incredible pieces up for auction at this year’s event, which benefits the Kemmons Wilson Center for Good Grief and Baptist Trinity Hospice. You can find more information (and the opportunity to buy tickets!) here: http://baptistartofcaring.org/event-details/.
- On Sunday, October 5, you will not want to miss the Camp Good Grief 5K, which directly supports this wonderful camp! This family event has food, moon bounces, face painting, and more (including, you know, an actual race)! If you are training for the St. Jude Half Marathon, it’s also perfectly timed for a race-pace 5K—HOW PERFECT!! You can register here: http://campgoodgrief5k.racesonline.com.