Comfort Zone Camp: A Place for Grieving, Healing, and Growing

By Steve Sears

Nikki Russo, 25, painfully recalls that day when she was 11-years-old.

Her dad had suffered  a number of health ailments, and after a scheduled surgery to improve circulation in his legs was deemed successful, two days later he died from a massive heart attack.

“My mom and I are very close now, but me and my dad just got each other.” Russo says. “We could just look at each other and know what each other were thinking. So, when I didn’t have that anymore, it was like a piece of my heart was taken away from me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. When my dad was sick, I would walk to my bus stop every morning – it was like a rite of passage as a 6th grader, you could walk to the bus stop by yourself – and I would call him every morning. I couldn’t talk to him anymore; it was depressing. It was such a numbing experience that I don’t even remember the first year.”

Katie Pereira, who is 24 years old, lost her dad, Franco Lalama, who was killed as he was helping folks exit the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. She was just seven years old. “As a result of my dad’s death,” says Pereira, “I was very angry and did not know how to deal with all of the emotions that came with grief.”

Both discovered Comfort Zone Camp, a bereavement group for young people, and it worked wonders for both. “It was the first time I really cried talking to somebody about it,” claims Russo, a Union City elementary school teacher. “That was the first time I told people my story and really talked about it. It was very beneficial to me and my mom. I always say that Comfort Zone Camp saved me and my mom’s relationship, and I generally believe it saved my life, because I was going down a very bad, destructive path.”

“I felt very alone, isolated, and different from everyone else my age,” says Pereira. “Going to Comfort Zone Camp helped me learn and understand that I was not alone and never will be in my grief journey.” An Operations Specialist with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, she also adds, “Comfort Zone helped me understand my emotions that I was feeling and helped me cope with my loss in a healthy way. I was very angry as a result of my dad’s death so being able to learn how to cope with my emotions at a young age helped shape who I am now.”

Lynne Hughes founded Comfort Zone Camp in 1998, seven years before she wrote You Are Not Alone, a bereavement book for teens. Camp is currently held primarily in five states: Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts,North Carolina and California. “My parents died when I was young; my mom died when I was 9, and my dad when I was 12,” says Hughes. “I went to summer camp after my parents died and I loved it. Then, I always wanted to be a camp counselor after I graduated, and then I went to Michigan State when I was in college, and I found a camp outside of Michigan, and then I found one in the Poconos which was co-ed, and then I met someone who suggested we start our own camp.”

Hughes was aware that there were no resources for grieving kids, not when she was a child and also when she entered adulthood.  The awareness and her experience in camp as a child and then camp counselor encouraged her to combine both into a resource for youngsters who suffered from loss of a sibling or parent. Comfort Zone Camp filled and still fills the void. “Grieving kids grow up in isolation, they might be the only ones in their school or community. When they show up and they meet 60 or 70 other kids at a camp and they visually drink in that message, ‘Gosh, I’m not alone; we’re all here for the same reason,’ it almost frees them up to step outside of their loss to get back to being a kid again.” Comfort Zone Camp has activities to allow kids to grieve, tell their stories, and teaches them skills that will help them in everyday life. The camp is open to individuals ages 7 to 25.

Mitch Decter is a Comfort Zone Camp Board member. “I volunteered for my first camp in Richmond, Virginia, and shortly after the tragic events of 9/11, we promptly started to conduct camps for the families affected by the tragic events.  Many of the children who attended the camps in 2001 now serve as “big buddies” at our camps. Eventually, we hosted many camps in the New York\New Jersey area for any child who had suffered the loss of a parent or sibling.”

Pereira, who is originally from New Jersey and now lives with her husband, has been involved with the camp since 2001, first as a camper, then a junior counselor, and now Big Buddy and volunteer. “It feels great to be able to give back to a place that gave me my life back.”

Russo herself has attended Comfort Zone camp 25 times. “In the beginning in New Jersey, they would let campers go more than once a year. Once it became more popular and well known, I could only go once a year. Then I started volunteering as a counselor so that I could go to every camp.”

“Many of our adult volunteers suffered a loss when they were a child,” adds Decter. “They always say that they wished there was something like Comfort Zone Camp when they were young.  While the volunteers are there to support the children, they are also afforded the opportunity to talk about their loved ones and share the ways in which their loss influenced who they are today.   The bond between little buddies and big buddies is extraordinary, and many of the friendships carry on beyond camp. One of my first little buddies was a 7-year-old boy named Tyler, who lost his dad on 9/11.  He and I were paired together at camps for almost 10 years. I would visit him and his family from time-to-time and felt a responsibility to be a part of his life. At our most recent New Jersey camp, Tyler, who is now 25 years old, and I volunteered as big buddies together. I watched with such pride and felt like things had come full circle watching him be there for his little buddy.”  

Per Pereira, Comfort Zone Camp is a “truly magical place.” “You walk into your first camp wondering how it will be, but then when the weekend is over you don’t want to leave. The weekend is set up like a summer camp feel, but everything you do that weekend relates to grief in some way. I took everything I learned about grief and use those learnings in other aspects of life. When someone asks how you can explain Comfort Zone Camp, one word always comes to mind, and that is “bubble.” Comfort Zone Camp is a bubble. You enter into it and you get to be in that moment for the whole weekend and nothing else in your world matters that moment. Camp helps you cope with your death that you experienced in your life, but then you also learn how to cope with other losses that you may encounter throughout life. When one of your loved ones passes away you can also sometimes lose other things that relate to that loss.”

Pereira offers the following to those who are not yet ready to share the feelings. “I would say that you do not have to share if you are not ready to. Sometimes you don’t have to say anything to get everything that you need to help cope with your loss, but I would encourage everyone to attend a camp weekend because just being there in the camp bubble will help you cope and help guide you with your grief.”

As previously noted by Russo, volunteers – aka “Big Buddies” – benefit as much as those they are aiding. “Absolutely,” agrees Hughes. “Every time you listen to how someone feels, every time you tell someone how you feel, whether you’re a child or an adult mentoring somebody, it gives it purpose and meaning as to why this adversity happened to you, so when you get to give that purpose and meaning to it, give back and pay it forward, it helps them to navigate their grief journey, and potentially make it easier for your own, it’s very rewarding.”

“It helps you stay connected to your own loved one, too.”

Decter agrees. “The most important benefit of Comfort Zone Camp is that the children who attend our camps learn that they are not alone in their grief journey.  Many children report that they don’t like to talk about their loss when they are at school because they feel different and alienated. At camp, they are surrounded by other kids and volunteers who have experienced something similar to what they went through.”

Comfort Zone Camp is held on the weekends all year round. Sign-up is done via the camp website by creating an account and profile, selecting a camp date, and then there is a screening process after sign-up. Comfort Zone Camp is free to all children. Activities are the same at all camps but could vary by time of the year. There is time for all-around kids fun, buy also time for breaking the attendees down by age into groups and placing them into grief support circles, which are called “healing circles,” led by a healing circle leader who is a mental health professional. Discussed are stories, feelings, grief in the body, how things have changed at home, talk about different skills, and more. “We know,” says Hughes, “we’re not going to cure or fix everything up during the course of the weekend, but what tools can we give them to help them navigate their day-to-day grief journey, as well as kind of prepare them for big milestones?” Examples are graduations and the like, but also preparing for not taking part in a Father\Daughter Dance for the first time. There are limited travel scholarships offered, so prospective attendees are directed to camps close to their home. More information is available on the Comfort Zone Camp website.

“I am incredibly proud of my affiliation with Comfort Zone and it has been such a pleasure to see the positive results of many children who I have watched grow up,” says Decker. “We teach them that their grief journey never ends, it just becomes different over time.  I hope that Comfort Zone Camp continues to grow so that we can continue to support children who should never feel like they are alone. “

Speaking of ‘grow”, volunteers (who are trained) are welcome, as are donations. Hughes says there are kids on a waiting list, so the goal is to get them off the list and into more camps. That, and camps of longer duration, are the goal. Decter adds, “Comfort Zone Camp is free to all families.  Therefore, fundraising and corporate sponsorship are what allow us to serve as many grieving children as possible. The more money we are able to raise, the more children can attend camp. Right now, we have three camps scheduled in New Jersey for 2019 — next year we would love to double that. In addition, we are always looking for people to serve as big buddies.  You do not have to had suffered a loss or have any professional experience. Instead, you can attend a training session and learn about what it means to serve as a big buddy.”

Hughes speaks to the benefit of her founded, very worthwhile 501 (c) 3. “Comfort Zone Camp is important because kids break their isolation, get back to being a kid again, and get the opportunity to have the peace of their healing. We literally see kids blossom, grow, and heal right in front of our eyes. And there’s nothing more powerful and humbling than being a part of that.”

That is something both Russo and Pereira can attest to. “It’s still a rescue for me,” says Russo. “I get choked up just talking about it,” she continues through tears. “I have a boyfriend, and I wish my dad was here now to meet him, talk to him, because I know they would get along. Just going to camp as a Big Buddy now is my saving grace. I get to give advice and talk to kids, it’s really a nice experience.”

Pereira adds, “Comfort Zone Camp changed my life. I do not know how I would have been able to cope and deal with my dad’s death if I did not have the support system of my camp family. I grew up with Comfort Zone Camp and I am forever grateful to them for changing my life and showing me that I am not alone.”

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