Fri, May 19, 2017
Andrea Hopson knows from several perspectives how WellStar West Georgia Hospice’s Camp Dogwood — a free overnight grief camp for children — can help a young person who has lost a close friend or family member in the past year.
Hopson, the counselor at Berta Weathersbee Elementary School, will be volunteering for her sixth year at the camp, which is being held Friday to Sunday, June 2 to 4, at Georgia Sheriffs’ Pineland/Camp Pioneer on Youngs Mill Road.
“I look forward to this weekend every year,” Hopson said. “Almost all the group counselors are school system counselors, and others have had special training in grief and children. We have just as much fun as the kids do.”
Hopson first began volunteering at Camp Dogwood when she was studying to become a school counselor as a senior at Columbus State University. As she was dealing with the stresses that come with college graduation, her grandmother died and left her with the profound grief that comes from losing someone so close.
“When I went to Camp Dogwood to volunteer that first summer, I was pushing through challenges of my own in my personal grief process,” she said. “I learned so much that weekend about how to process my own emotions and also was able to really identify with some of the children’s emotions and experiences.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Camp Dogwood, which West Georgia Hospice provides at no charge to families of the children, who must be in kindergarten through seventh grade; lost a close friend or family member within the past year; and live in Troup, Coweta, Heard, Meriwether or Harris counties. The camp can accept up to 60 children each summer.
Hopson’s best friend, Stephanie Hand, has joined her in volunteering every year. Both of them began volunteering as a tribute to lost loved ones; Hand lost her father, Al Hand, to cancer a few years prior.
Also volunteering for the second year is Hopson’s sister, Jessica Hopson, whose daughter Marli, 7, will be a camper this year after the loss of her great-grandfather, Terry Redden, who died in March. Redden also was the Hopson sisters’ grandfather.
“We just liked spending time together,” Marli said of her “Paw Paw.” “We ate doughnuts together, and he always had Pepsi and peanuts to share with me.”
Marli said she is looking forward to Camp Dogwood because she’s heard about all the fun the kids have water-sliding, fishing, horseback-riding, swimming, playing games and creating arts and crafts.
In addition to fun and recreation, trained volunteer counselors also gather children according to age in small groups to help provide guidance as they meet other children who understand the depths of what they’re feeling, Hopson said.
“The great thing a child realizes at camp is that everyone else there has gone through exactly what they’ve gone through,” Hopson said. “The biggest thing we try to stress is that everyone is going through a different process in their grief, and we’re going to work to meet them in that process. We want them to know there is no right way or wrong way to deal with death.”
Tammy Forbus, West Georgia Hospice’s volunteer coordinator, said many of the children’s losses are especially devastating.
“Some of our children have lost their father or mother, and some have even lost both in one year,” Forbus said. “Others have lost grandparents who served in the role as parents for them. Many children who come have lost brothers or sisters, a special cousin, an aunt or uncle, or a really good family friend. These are life-changing and devastating losses for them at such a young age.”
Area school counselors like Hopson are familiar with Camp Dogwood and refer children throughout the year who might benefit from the weekend. It also helps children to see the familiar faces of school counselors as they volunteer.
In addition to having fun and sharing in small groups, the children also enjoy sharing a special tradition with their families at the end of camp on Sunday. Parents are invited back for a touching memorial service to close out the weekend: The children write a note to their loved one and tie it to a balloon, which is released into the air to remember those they’ve lost.
“The children release their balloons one by one as their loved one’s name is called,” Forbus said. “It’s a wonderful remembrance and a beautiful way to end the weekend.”
Forbus said in addition to a hard working team of staff members who begin preparations for the camp in January, about 75 volunteers are needed each year to help Camp Dogwood run smoothly, from small-group helpers, cabin volunteers, activities volunteers and mealtime volunteers. Volunteers can choose whether to spend the night.
“Our volunteers are angels at work,” she said. “They graciously share their valuable time and talents with our campers. It is so humbling to be able to serve with these wonderful people.”
Additionally, Forbus would like to thank the many civic groups, churches, businesses and individuals who contribute offerings and other donations to Camp Dogwood throughout the year.
“The generosity of our community, along with our amazing volunteers, enables West Georgia Hospice to provide this camp at no cost to the families,” she said. “Camp gives the children a place to express their feelings, learn how to cope, and remember the person they lost in a special way. It is our privilege to be able to do this each year.”
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