Comfort Zone Camp Helps Grieving Kids
By Luke Schmaltz, VOICES Newsletter Editor
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” – Pablo Picasso
Krista Collopy serves as the regional director for Comfort Zone Camp (CZC). As a former camper, Collopy is a living testament to how CZC helps kids who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or other beloved individual.
Collopy explains how her experience with CZC helped her find her professional calling. “My dad died when I was nine, he had a brain tumor,” she explains. “I didn’t find out about Comfort Zone until I was 16. I’ll be quite honest, most of our campers, including myself, do not want to go. I was like, ‘What am I going to do, just cry the whole time?’”
During her first camp, however, Collopy quickly changed her mind due to the welcoming nature of the program. “One of the first things we do on Fridays is eat dinner, then we play some ice-breaker games, then we sit down, and we hear a volunteer share their story. When I was 16, I heard a girl say that when she was nine years old, her dad died of a brain tumor — just like my dad. At that moment I was totally blown away because in the seven years since my dad died, I had never met someone else who had lost a parent. It really rocked my world, and I was able to go into that healing circle and open up, share, and connect with the other teenagers in my group.”
Lasting Help for Kids
“I went back three times as a camper, once as a young adult camper, and then I immediately started volunteering because I wanted to give back. After that, I got hired by the organization and I’ve been working here for quite a few years.”
“We’ve helped over 23,000 children, all completely free of charge,” Collopy continues. “We were founded by Lynn Hughes who is our current CEO. She experienced the death of both of her parents by the time she was 13. She knew that her life had a purpose, and she wasn’t supposed to go through this tragedy for no reason. She attended summer camp and really found a community there and she met her husband there. The two of them were in Richmond (VA), and she really wanted to help grieving kids. So, they founded CZC and held their first camp in 1999. We run about 30 camps per year.”
CZC is for anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one to any cause, including substance use. Camps are designed for three age groups: seven to 17, 18 to 25, and parents and guardians. The organization was founded 23 years ago and has since expanded into a national organization across 10 states, with year-round weekend camps held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
A Growing Problem
Collopy explains how the loss of loved ones to substance use is an increasing concern. “From 2021 to 2022, we saw a 31 percent increase in applications due to overdose loss. We decided we really wanted to support that population, so we created a program for families that have experienced a death due to an overdose loss. It’s really nice to be able to offer those, so kids can meet others who have gone through that same experience. Sometimes those are more stigmatized losses, so they deal with different issues than a long-term illness. It’s a really powerful opportunity for them to know they are not alone.”
In the seven to 17 age range, camps focused on substance-use-related deaths are broken down further into specific age-based support groups called Healing Circles. “Each kid has a volunteer big buddy and the person running that group is called a Healing Circle Leader,” Collopy explains. “During the weekend, they get opportunities to learn coping skills and to tangibly be able to handle the emotions they are feeling. Maybe there’s a lot of guilt or ‘Why did my loved one not choose me but chose drugs over me?’ They can verbalize that and share their story or hear others share their stories or just participate in activities the Healing Circle Leader has prepared for them.”
In the wake of the pandemic, CZC developed programs for addressing issues such as the death of a loved one, isolation, and Zoom fatigue. These programs are facilitated during CZC’s COVID Loss Camps, which feature a comprehensive family-based approach. “We decided to bring the whole family to camp,” Collopy says. “We did separate programs for the parents and the kids, and the feedback we got from that weekend — we truly got to see the whole family heal.”
From September 22 to 24, CZC will host an Overdose Loss Camp in Fishkill, NY. There will be separate parent and kids parent programs based on newly applied, post-COVID, family-based dynamics.
“Before, we were giving all these tools to the kids, but they were going back to the parents who may or may not be doing the same things.” Collopy looks forward to working with parents of grieving children based on her personal CZC healing experience. “I’m able to go into the parent program, share my story, and tell them, ‘Your kid is going to be OK.’ My dad died and it was horrific, but it has brought me some good things. I’ve had to struggle, but I’ve ultimately become a stronger person because of it.”
Healing Circle Leader Jenn Harris, a clinical social worker, offers more insight into kids groups at the Overdose Loss Camps. “Kids are arranged by age groups,” she says. “Throughout the weekend, healing circle groups meet four different times. We really emphasize ways to keep honoring your loved one.”
Harris is also mindful of the ever-present stigma attached to substance-use-related death. “Even with kids who have experienced a loss, there’s still a stigma. she explains. “There’s the stigma they deal with, plus the question of why their parent couldn’t get sober can be tough. A lot of kids are really angry.”
Regardless, Harris offers a few points of hard-won advice for people, especially kids, who are dealing with grief:
- The feelings are normal.
- It’s OK to be in pain.
- It’s OK to experience joy and laughter.
- Every situation is unique yet normal.
- Don’t do it alone.