Georgia camp gives grieving kids a safe place to deal with their loss

If you saw the smiles on many of their young faces, you wouldn't know their lives had been shattered. To many people, Camp Good Mourning, sponsored by Kate's Club, may look like a typical summer camp.

Swimming, crafts, a big dance and even a few pranks help fill the days, but discussions and relationships here are different.

At this camp, each daily activity is designed to rebuild the lives of young people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.

One of those young people is Kevin. When Kevin arrived at camp, he seemed like he had neither the energy nor the desire to smile. The teen always pulled the hood of his jacket over his head. He gave only short answers to any questions. He seemed guarded and aloof.

To Kate's Club volunteer Emily Lieberman, his behavior was understandable. Kevin's father had recently died. Lieberman understood because she had been there.

Lieberman was 13 when her 15-year-old sister, Beth, was hit by a car and died.

Two-and-a-half years later, when Lieberman was 16, her mother died from emphysema.

"Losing her daughter took a toll on her health," Lieberman said of her mother.

Looking back, Lieberman said, "I was sad, angry and lonely, and I felt a bit lost at times, not sure who to ask for help."

Her losses as a teenager helped persuade her to become involved with Kate's Club in 2013 after a co-worker introduced her to the organization.

"I can't say how many times I now wonder how my life would have been different if I'd had a Kate's Club," she said.

"I know what it's like to grieve without the support of an organization like Kate's Club. I knew right away I wanted to be part of it," Lieberman said.

Kate's Club was started in June 2003 by Kate Atwood, who, at age 12, lost her mother to breast cancer. She was inspired to give children who shared a similar loss a place where they would know they were not alone in their grieving.

Camp Good Mourning is just one of several programs offered by Kate's Club that provide social, recreational and emotional support to grieving children. In 2015, 215 children and 90 volunteers were a part of the camp. This year's camp is scheduled for Aug. 5-7 at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, Georgia.

The three-day/two-night camp is "an incredibly rewarding experience for both the volunteers and the kids. The kids have access to activities they don't normally get to do, the time to bond with one another and the volunteers, and an opportunity to honor their loved ones throughout the weekend," Lieberman said.

As Lieberman has given time and energy to Kate's Club, wanting to help kids who are grieving, she has found herself moving forward in her decades-old grief journey.

"Being a volunteer at Kate's Club has profoundly helped me with my own grief. I can honestly say that it wasn't until I had been volunteering there that I have truly come to terms with my loss. I've always accepted it and lived with it, but I don't think I ever really connected with my loss or came to terms with it," she said.

Lieberman said it's difficult to put into words how much it has meant to her to help others, like Kevin, on their grief journeys.

"It's been three years since I've been volunteering and working with Kevin. As the months went on, Kevin began to open up more the hood, literally and figuratively, coming down.

"The last time I saw him, he came running up to me out of nowhere with a huge smile on his face, gave me a big hug and said how good it was to see me. It became clear to me that day how far he's come."

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.