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Camps Founded By Westport Couple Treat Kids Coping With Loss

Sara Deren, right, of Westport is the Executive Director of Experience Camps. Her husband, Jon, is the owner and founder. They are shown with their three children. The camps are for children who have lost a parent, sibling or caregiver.
Sara Deren, right, of Westport is the Executive Director of Experience Camps. Her husband, Jon, is the owner and founder. They are shown with their three children. The camps are for children who have lost a parent, sibling or caregiver. Photo Credit: Contributed

WESTPORT, Conn. -- Sara and Jon Deren of Westport earned masters degrees in business from a prestigious Ivy League university. They have gone on to combine their business expertise and love of camp to help children cope with loss.

Sara is the Executive Director for Experience Camps. With locations in Maine, California and New York, it provides free weeklong summer programs for boys and girls whose parents, siblings or primary caregivers have died. The camps build confidence in the children, and allows them to navigate their grief through friendship, teamwork, athletics and the common bond of loss. “Basically it started on a whim,’’ Sara said. “Our footprint has grown, our number of campers, our board. The magic that has been created has continued to grow. It’s a special experience for everyone that’s involved.”

Jon frequently spent summers at Camp Manitou, in Oakland, Maine and eventually purchased the property. A nearby facility held a camp for girls who were grieving a loss. They asked the Derens to consider doing the same for boys.

Sara, who worked in the financial services sector for 11 years, turned her attention to Camp Manitou after getting laid off as the recession took hold. “It was an opportunity to do something different and have kids experience camp who wouldn’t otherwise do so,’’ Sara said.

The first camp in 2009 hosted 27 campers, mostly brothers of girls from the nearby camp. “We were blown away by what transpired,’’ Sara said.

After some initial hesitation, the boys quickly bonded. Licensed clinicians facilitated peer group discussions, and the boys quickly found comfort in expressing their grief with boys of similar age who shared the same feelings.

“Seeing those kids coming to camp for the first time, where they didn’t know how to talk about grief and not knowing anyone there, I was astonished,’’ Deren said. “Very quickly, they were able to connect with each other and open up in a way that they never had before.”

Four years later, the Derens opened a camp in California, and expanded their camps to girls. It added a third camp in Monticello, N.Y., in 2015 and next year will add a camp in Georgia. This summer, Experience Camps hosted nearly 400 children.

Experience Camps provide recreational outlets similar to nearly every other children’s camp. Through sports, camp traditions and community living, they learn about leadership, confidence and cooperation.

What distinguishes the Experience Camps from others is its ability to provide a professional bereavement staff to talk with campers. They share stories that help them remember the person who died, and learn skills that will help them after camp breaks.

“We’re taking them out of their normal environment where the other elements of their lives can weigh them down,’’ Deren said. “For a kid, that’s a lot of responsibility. This lets them focus on their own grief.”

Deren said the transformation begins immediately. On the first day, the kids arrive at camp and jump immediately into activities. “Just being physical right away releases their anxiety about being in an unfamiliar place,’’ she said. “They realize we’re here to have fun. When they engage in play, they’re more likely to open up.”

The children’s comfort level with each other develops rapidly. In a matter of hours, they open up and share their thoughts. “They get to decide when they share something and when they engage in that side of the process,’’ Deren said. “They open up when you least expect it.”

The Derens do not do it alone. They have corporate and foundation partners that help them meet expenses. Associate Director Josh Hahn has more than 25 years of experience as a camper, counselor, administrator and volunteer. Jenny Schreiber, its clinical director, founded a children’s bereavement facility in Massachusetts. Its board of directors is comprised of people from a wide range of business sectors.

Sara’s own business background has also helped. “At the end of the day, I’m running an organization and that’s where my background comes in,’’ Sara said. “I’m running a business in a lot of ways. I’m able to do that because of my business background. I surround myself with people that meet the needs of the population.”

A competition hosted by Revlon could spur even more growth for Experience Camps. The company is hosting a fundraising challenge through Oct. 26 in which the winner receives $1 million. Experience Camps held a slim lead as of last Friday. Click here to support the camp with an online donation.

The financial largesse could help Experience Camps support more children. A statistic on the camp’s website reports 1.5 million children are living in a single parent household because of the death of a parent.

“We want them to know they are not alone,’’ Deren said. “That’s one of the feelings that stands out. When kids feel alone and don’t feel supported, the outcomes can be very negative. Sharing their own journeys through grief is a huge part of the healing process. When they go through our camp, many of them feel like they didn’t want to be in this club, but are glad they are because they got to know wonderful people, and something good came out of it.”

For more information on Experience Camps, click here to visit its website.

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