I am writing as a retired United Methodist pastor with 47 years’ experience as a pastor and District Superintendent. Since retirement in 2000 I have spent my summers as a full-time volunteer chaplain and “Grandfather In Residence” at our United Methodist camp, Skye Farm Camp & Retreat Center, in Warrensburg, NY. It is out of this experience that I want to share some observations and ideas about The Lonesome Camper.
Skye Farm has a decentralized program emphasis with a series of small cabins, each having 5, 6, or 7 campers. These cabins are located in wooded areas. The wash houses, health lodge, dining hall and various large meeting areas have electricity but the cabins do not, so they are very dark at night. While we do have internet service on the property, we do not allow any electronic devices with the campers or counselors. All this is to say that the experience here is different from what most people live with at home.
In my 15 years here, I have seen very few homesick campers. I define “homesick campers” as those who are so traumatized by the separation that they cannot eat, sleep, concentrate, or participate in any of the communal life of the camp. The anxiety of their separation from home has become an actual medical condition, and they need to be returned to their home as soon as possible. On the other hand, I have seen hundreds of lonesome campers. This is not just a matter of semantics, to distinguish between homesick campers and lonesome campers. Lonesome campers are primarily responding to the pain of grief, and they may do so in a variety of ways. Some become belligerent, some cry, some “show off,” some become sullen. But all are finding ways to respond to the pain of grief.
By identifying them as responding to the pain of grief, we accept the fact that lonesome campers are not sick. They do not have to be healed. They are not unhealthy in any way. We do not have to change them or make sure they get over it, but rather help them to see that they are absolutely normal and healthy to deal with this painful experience of grief.
One of the common mistakes, in my opinion, is to try to “cheer them up” and make them feel better. “O just think, tomorrow we are going on a great hike, or having pancakes for breakfast, or some other exciting news.” We would not try that approach with adults in grief, and I think it is not productive to do it with campers in grief.
When I meet with lonesome campers I encourage them to talk about what they miss the most. I ask them about home, about who they live with. Who are the adults? Do they have any pets? If they can identify the one person they miss the most, then I remind them of how great it is to have such a wonderful Mom, or Dad, or Aunt Sue. What would they like to be saying to them right now if they were present? I remind them that I miss my Mom and I still “talk with her” as a way of helping my memory of her. We share a common story and I can truthfully say that I have some understanding of their feelings.
I try to remember that the camper is grieving and that the pain is present but not of constant intensity. I may remind the camper that at some time they may have fallen and scraped their knee. It hurt and they cried. Eventually they stopped crying, even though the knee still hurt. They have had experiences dealing with pain and getting on with life even with the pain still present. It is the natural way we do things.
I also try to be aware of the fact that a week away from home is a long time for young campers. On Sunday night, the first night here at camp, to talk about being away until Friday evening when parents come to pick them up, is like talking about an eternity. So we take it one segment at a time. Almost all campers have the experience of being away from home for 8 hours a day at school. It is a familiar experience and I try to build on that. “Let’s get through tonight.” I may provide a very low intensity light for the cabin to get rid of that strange darkness. Most campers won’t admit they are afraid of the dark, so I remind them that even I have a night light on at my house when I am not at camp. When morning comes, if we meet again, we will just work to stay until after lunch, etc.
At Skye Farm we do not have phones available for campers to call home. We have limited lines. I may tell a lonesome camper that I will call home and tell the family about how the camper is doing. If I say I will call home, then I do just that, and I will report back to the camper. That way I carry some greetings and also let the camper know that the folks at home are OK. That often is a worry on the minds of campers, especially in a broken home situation.
I have found that by working with lonesome campers as ones who are experiencing an absolutely normal emotion, the pain of grief, helping them remember times they have had other pains and worked through them, and “patching them through” with smaller segments of time, has helped bring them through the week in a positive fashion. Then on Friday at camper pick-up time I do my very best to speak to the parents/guardians with the camper present, and tell them all how proud I am of the way the camper worked his/her way through the experience and how helpful the parents were in this process.
From my personal viewpoint, dealing with a crying child in pain is very difficult and painful for me. What keeps me doing it is the thrill and joy of sharing “the victory” with the family at the end of the week. It is all part of a valuable ministry and I love it.
Art Hagy is an 83-year-old United Methodist pastor presently serving Center Brunswick UMC in Troy, NY. In 2012 he served a year as Interim Director at Skye Farm, and for the past 15 years has spent summers there as a full time summer volunteer chaplain and “Grandfather-in-Residence.”