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Tracy Headlight Herald

Teen has grown-up goals to help others

Whitney Buesgens
Whitney Buesgens, speaking to the Tracy Kiwanis Club last week.

By Seth Schmidt

Whitney Buesgens has many interests of a typical teen.

The 15-year-old likes to go shopping, watch movies, and hang out with friends.  The Slayton sophomore plays basketball, runs cross-country, and plays the piano.  Whitney works hard to keep her grades up at school, participates in speech and is active in her church youth group.

But she is a young woman on a mission.  Since last year, Whitney has devoted hundreds of hours to organizing a camp for grieving children.  Thanks largely to her efforts, "Camp Love's Embrace" will be held at the Lakota Retreat Center on Lake Shetek May 3-4, 2003.

"I am very, very excited about the camp," she says.  "It's like watching a dream come to life and become your reality."

Camp Love's Embrace is an overnight camp for children 6-14 who are experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one, such as a sibling, mother, father, grandparent, or friend.  Children at the camp will be treated to fun recreational activities while also being paired with a trained "Big Buddy."  The mentor's job will be to listen to the child's story and help them remember their loved one and grieve.

The idea for Camp Love's Embrace came to Whitney in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks of terrorism against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  News reports of children who had lost one or both parents in the attacks deeply touched her.

"Like the rest of America, I ached for them and wished I could do something to relieve their pain," she remembers.  The she saw a TV news story about a children's grief camp that was offering free weekends for the children of Sept. 11.

"That sparked my interest because I had never even heard of a children's grief camp.  So I started to research what they were.  I discovered that there were many such camps on either coast but very few in the Midwest."

To help lay the groundwork for the camp in Minnesota, Whitney contacted every college in Minnesota that offers a Masters Degree in social work.  The lead professor at Mankato State University was impressed enough to invite Whitney to speak at a state meeting for Licensed Social Workers.  Whitney also spoke with professors at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, the University of Sioux Falls, North American Baptist Seminary, and South Dakota State University.

Word began to spread.  People and organizations started giving money.  People offered to help.  A non-profit organization was formed.  Adults offered to serve on the Board of Directors.

Whitney feels that children who lose loved ones often have many unmet emotional needs.  Often grieving children become isolated because they often don't know anyone their age who has experienced a similar loss.  If their parents are also grieving, children may not want to share their feelings for fear of making their parents more sad.  She feels it is vital that a grieving child be able to share their experience with peers who have suffered a similar loss.

Some of her feelings about childhood grief are drawn from volunteer work at the Murray County Hospice's "Our House."

"I have seen and talked to children there, who were visiting their grandparents or loved one, and I realized the need for these children to have a way to experience and deal with their grief."  She also remembers how she felt when she was 11, when her mother needed heart surgery.

"I remember all too well the fear and unknown of what I would do without my mom."

She's looking forward to the first Camp Love's Embrace, which she wants to be completely free to any child who wants to attend.  If she can get enough donations, Whitney says Camp Love's Embrace will be the only free independent grief support camp for children in Minnesota this year.

"All of us have times in our lives when we need someone else to be strong for us and to support," she says.  "The problem is, we never know when that time will be.  We all need to help one another by doing whatever we can, because non of us know when we will be the one who needs the comfort and support."

She feels good about how camp plans are unfolding.

"I am doing what I can right now, and that feels very, very good."

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The treasurer for Camp Love's Embrace is Janet Voges, chief cashier, Minnesota Bank South, Slayton.  Sally Berg, principal at Murray County Central Elementary School, is the organization's Vice President.

Whitney, the camp founder, was given the honor of being President of Camp Love's Embrace Board of Directors.

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