By Martha Nodar

Heather Staniszewski
Heather Staniszewski

Every year as the leaves start to change colors, volunteers and organizers from Hospice Atlanta in Brookhaven gear up for its annual children bereavement camp.

Tailored to about 100 children 7 to17 years-old who have lost a family member, Camp STARS, which stands for Sharing Together as Real Support, takes place during the first weekend in November at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, Georgia.

For the last six years, Brookhaven resident and Oglethorpe University graduate Heather Staniszewski has been one of those volunteers participating in the annual endeavor. Growing up in a family that promoted volunteering, it is no surprise Staniszewski returned to her alma mater three years ago to serve as the assistant director for the university’s Center for Civic Engagement. The center connects Oglethorpe students to community service.

“Being involved with this camp is my favorite volunteer project,” Staniszewski said. “I get to see first-hand the resilience, the growth, the transformation these children experience over the weekend.”

In addition to having volunteer cabin counselors, such as Staniszewski, the camp also has volunteer social workers, teachers, nurses, parents and former campers. Together, they, respectively, facilitate formal counseling, support, and organize the typical outdoors activities expected at camp.

“We meet the kids where they are,” said Barbara Moore, the director of volunteer services at Hospice Atlanta. “It is important to let the children heal at their own pace.”

Moore said the idea of a camp originated about 17 years ago in an effort to fill a need for children who had lost a sibling. From there, they extended to the loss of other family members. Moore said the consensus back then was the need to have a safe place where the children could get together with other children about the same age who had also experienced a similar loss.

Former camper Brooke Carithers was one of those children who attended the camp for the first time 11 years ago, and returned to camp four years ago and has been volunteering as a cabin counselor alongside Staniszewski ever since.

“I empathize with how the campers feel when they first arrive,” Carithers said.

Carithers said the camp helped her give herself permission to cry and grieve her loss.

“Oftentimes in our society the message received is that crying is a sign of weakness, especially with boys,” she said. “I felt a special bond with the other campers that I could not had with my classmates who were not able to relate to my loss.”

Carithers and Staniszewski said rather than pushing away the feelings, the children are encouraged to share it with others, and remember their loved ones in creative ways.

“We do arts and crafts,” Carithers said. “There is always a project that is incorporated into the program to honor the person they lost.”

“They could be playing or paddling a boat,” Staniszewski said, “and they look up to their new friend and share how much they miss their mom, brother, or sister. Tears are shed, but also lots of smiles and laughter.”

Nestled within a mixed residential and office park complex, Hospice Atlanta, is a division of the community nonprofit Visiting Nurse/Hospice Atlanta, which depends on corporate and individual donations. There is a nominal application fee to attend camp, which may be waived for those children who are not able to afford it.

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