The secret’s out… I’m head over heels in love with traveling; and throughout my past three summers, I have been given unbelievable opportunities to see the world. But throughout those past three summers, of all the places I’ve wandered to, it’s been a week spent in Granbury, Texas, every August that has truly stolen my heart.
Camp El Tesoro de la Vida is a week-long grief camp for kids who have lost a loved one in their lives. It is run by 80 brave volunteers and a handful of impressive therapists–my camp family that I adore. It is a normal camp with normal camp activities–horseback riding, archery, swimming, crafts, singing, etc. It’s just that the campers all have one thing in common: grief.
A large majority of the campers come from unfortunate backgrounds and have unsettling stories to share. Many kids are told not to cry at home and choose not to talk about their loved ones, so camp is a massive stepping stone in their grieving processes. At camp they talk about their loved ones along with other kids who do not judge them, for they can ultimately relate. They learn to trust one another and they learn that it is okay to cry. Despite all of the hardships they have had to face, they are still normal kids who have so much to offer. They love to laugh and tattle and tease. They love to swim and obsess over dates to the big dance. But despite the anger, guilt and sorrow they carry, these kids still know how to smile and have fun.
Responsible for six 8-year-old girls, the highs and lows were spread far and wide for this cabin buddy.
There were so many moments during the week when I found myself so hot (did I mention that we don’t have air conditioning at camp?) and so frustrated. Trust me, you would be, too, if the following were your new catchphrases:
“If you’re tattling, I don’t want to know.”
“Daddy Longlegs are good spiders!”
“Where is your water bottle?”
“Why was that a good idea?”
“Whose underwear is this?”
“Whose underwear is this?”
“This needs to be the fastest shower you’ve ever taken!”
“Every stall has bugs in it, so you can either pee now or when you get home in five days.”
There were moments when I found myself grinning.
- Watching my dad fall in love with camp
- Eat from Steve’s plate day
- The Russian swim team’s appearance in honor of the Olympics
- Waking up during several nights drenched in sweat, wondering how the batteries in my fan died so quickly, only to realize that one of my girls would wait until I was asleep to turn my three fans to face her. Outwit, outplay, outlast… That chick knew what she was doing. I couldn’t even be upset.
- Prepping and planning with my girls all week to do a big kitchen raid–my favorite part of camp. When Thursday night finally arrived, I put black under their eyes and strategically picked which trees to hide behind. I left to be sure the “coast was clear” and instructed them to pretend to be sleeping incase anyone came by the cabin. I returned 15 minutes later to a cabin full of snoring. And not the pretend kind. They all woke up the next morning with their tennis shoes on and black smeared on their pillows. Joke was on me this year.
And there were brief moments scattered throughout the fun that really hit me hard. Short, little moments that brought me monstrous perspective and filled my heart with gratitude.
One evening, I observed two 6-year-old girls talk about the death of their loved ones during our closing ceremony. The dark chapel was illuminated by 18 candles in tins and soft music swayed through the stale air. The lower camp girls were instructed to blow out their candles when they felt they were ready to let go of their loved ones. When they felt they were ready to let their hearts heal just a little bit more. Wails and sniffles quickly drowned out the music.
One of the girls began to sob as she reflected on the loss of her daddy. I watched her small friend embrace her. “You know your daddy’s always with you,” she said. “You can always find him in your heart. You’ll see him again soon.”
Touched by the moment, my cheeks were no longer dry. One of my girls, who hadn’t opened up all week about the death of her mom and dad, inquired about my tears. I asked her if she was thinking about her parents, and she whispered, “Kind of.” She told me she isn’t really allowed to cry at home, and that was very obvious through her apprehensiveness to reflect on her parents. “You know it’s okay to cry,” I said, and almost immediately, she fell forward into my arms and she began to weep uncontrollably. “It’s just so hard,” she said over and over again as she buried her head into my chest. “It’s not fair that I had to lose my mommy and my daddy.”
The next morning at breakfast, she met an 8-year-old boy who had also lost his mom and dad.
I will never forget the look on her face when she figured out they shared more than just the same birthday. When she figured out she wasn’t alone.
These kids may have just learned to tie their shoes, but they are brave and they are courageous, and they have taught me more life lessons than they will ever realize. They truly understand the treasure that life is. And although I have yet to lose someone close to me, I do know it is inevitable. When the seasons of my life change and grief becomes a part of my story, it will be these kids and this camp that get me through.
Camp has given me so much. One short, hot week every August manages to recharge me for a whole year. It provides me with perspective and reminds me why it is so important to give back to this crazy world. It has filled my heart with happiness and given me life-long friendships. It has given me the ability to realize that my bad days really aren’t so bad after all.