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Minneapolis StarTribune

A place for grieving kids to be embraced

 Inspired by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a Slayton teenager has created a camp as an emotional haven for young mourners.

By Karen Gail Jostad
Star Tribune Staff Writer

Before she could drive, 15-year-old Whitney Buesgens was pounding the pavement to raise money for her Camp Love's Embrace for grieving children.

In May, about a dozen children with one-on-one mentors attended the first free camping experience at Lakota Retreat Center on Lake Shetek near her hometown of Slayton, Minn.  The next camp is slated for May 15-16, 2004.

"You can never volunteer too much or give too much to your community," said Whitney, now 16.  If she can raise the money, she said she would like to offer the camp twice a year.

A straight-A student, avid sportswoman and musician, Whitney has been doing for others since she was 7, when she began reading to residents of Our House Hospice of Murray County.

Her devotion to the residents earned her an Eleven Who Care Award in 2001 from KARE-TV for outstanding volunteerism, and last year, a Tradition of Caring Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service.

Whitney established Camp Love's Embrace last year after hearing Katie Couric, co-anchor of NBC-TV's "The Today Show," interview an East Coast camp organizer for children affected by the Sept. 11 terror attacks.  After studying how the camps were run and about grief work with children, Whitney shared her vision for a local camp with a grief social worker in Slayton.

"She helped me find a board of directors and suggested where to go to get funding," Whitney said.

The teen canvassed businesses in or near Slayton for support.  Whitney's mother, Lori, and grandparents, Don and Fern Staples, of Slayton, drove her to speaking engagements at churches, Lion's and Kiwanis Clubs and other civic groups.  Contributions were generous.

Schwan Foods in Marshall, Minn., made a substantial contribution; also Slayton Women of Today, Swift and Co., where Whitney's father, Dan, is employed, and area funeral homes and individuals.

Whitney estimates that the camping weekend costs about $3,000.  A family friend loaned her a computer and projector for PowerPoint presentations.  Word spread quickly after Slayton-area newspapers wrote about Whitney's vision of a camp for grieving kids.  KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, which nominated Whitney for the Jefferson Award, announced her plans on a newscast.

More help pours in
Slayton attorney Paul Malone and accountant Jim Gerber offered to handle the camp's legal and financial matters for free.  A bank officer and school principal agreed to be on the camp's board of directors.  Whitney's grandparents offered to cook.

"It makes me very grateful that we have people in the community who will help me out," Whitney said.

During the two-day camp in May, mentors at Camp Love's Embrace arrived on Friday; campers the next day.  Mentors must be 19 or older and there are criminal background checks.  The mentors' primary role, Whitney said, is "to be an extra pair of ears to listen to what the kids have to say or a shoulder to cry on for what the kids need."

Greg Wasberg, a family therapist with Southwest Mental Health in Worthington, Minn., provided free counseling at the camp and facilitated the "healing circles."  They include stories of loss and grief, such as "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf," by Leo Buscaglia, and opportunities for campers and mentors to share their thoughts and feelings.

"The significant benefit for the kids was the chance to share the same experience," said Wasberg, "and to connect with an adult who's gone through that same sort of thing."

Following each circle, campers and mentors create memory pages about the loved ones who have died.  The pages are bound and sent home with the camper.

"It is our hope that through working on these books that provoke happy memories the children will open up and talk to their mentors about their loved one and realize it's OK to talk about, remember and feel good about the shared happy times," Whitney said.

One camper's experience
On May 7, Whitney received an e-mail from Monica Jensen of Beresford, S.D., whose 9-year-old son, Drew, attended Camp Love's Embrace.  His 17-year-old sister, Amanda, had been killed in a car accident in July 2001.  Drew brought to camp a poem titled "Heaven," that Amanda wrote a year before her death.  On one memory page he wrote that he felt "different than other kids."

"In our little community his classmates all have their brothers and sisters," Monica Jensen said.  "I think he felt odd at school.  Seeing there were other kids at camp in the same boat as him helped toward his healing."

On the way home from camp Drew told his mother he already missed it.

"It's been only three days [since camp], but I do see a change," Jensen wrote Whitney.  "He usually came home with negative things to focus on and that seems to be much better."

"I found out that I can cry," Drew told his mother.

The ABCs of Feelings page was especially helpful to her son, Monica Jensen said.

"It was about how they felt when the person died," she said.  "There were words in there [Drew wrote] that I was kind of surprised about.  For every letter they had to write a word.  Like L, he wrote 'lost inside,' and Q, 'questions.'  I think that equipped me to better help him.  You get so wrapped up in your own feelings inside and you don't know how to help them.  These words kind of give you something to go on."

Monica Jensen said she wishes there was a "mom camp."

During the camp's closing ceremony, a balloon was released by each child, accompanied by their mentor and family.  Attached was a note written by the child to the lost loved one.

"I wasn't prepared myself for how emotional it was to light the candle and release the balloon," Monica Jensen said, "but all of that is healing.

If you know an outstanding volunteer you'd like to see featured in this column, please write to Helping Out, Faith & Values, Star Tribune, 425  Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488.

Karen Gail Jostad is at kjostad@startribune.com.

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