I grew up in a family of alcoholics. Anyone raised around addiction knows the chaos, fear, angst, secrecy and pain that comes with it. As with my own childhood, there is often physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The isolation can be crippling and numbing.
You see, I believed all the other kids had perfect families and lives. For them, love was unconditional. They all fell asleep at night feeling safe. They couldn’t wait to get home after school. Holidays were magical and happy.
I thought the problems at home must have been because of me. I felt like a freak
Because all the other kids had such perfect lives, I thought the problems at home must have been because of me. I felt like a freak. I felt like my circumstances were my fault. Heck, I was the fault. That feeling stayed with me for decades.
We had no close neighbors or even any sidewalks. My house was surrounded by woods on three sides. Then in second grade, my best friend, Susan, introduced me to a place behind her home – Hillside Farms. Over the years, Susan and I would play in the rolling pastures. We explored the streams, visited the cows and sheep. There were ducks and pigs. In spring, sprawling daffodils covered the hills.
Hillside Farms was a feeling and became part of my soul
When I was at Hillside Farms, I felt alive, safe, and – most importantly – accepted. It became my refuge. It was more than a place – Hillside Farms was a feeling and became part of my soul. I visited as often as I could.
Then, in 2005, Hillside Farms became a non-profit, 412-acre, educational dairy farm. Five years later I got the opportunity to work there. I was home, in my childhood haven. My life had come full circle in the most extraordinary way.
Hillside Farms is an exceptionally cool place, created to teach a more sustainable way of life. It’s more than recycling or conservation. To us, ‘sustainable’ includes the environment, food, farming, spiritual and emotional health, family and more.
I wanted to find a way for the farm to help others children who were hurting
Thinking of my own personal experiences while growing up, I wanted to find a way for the farm to help others children who were hurting. I could recall so many positive feelings from my times there – good, comforting, safe feelings.
After discussing it with Chet Mozloom, Hillside’s executive director, we decided to try a one-week grief camp. A local hospice agreed to provide grief education activities and we launched the first camp in 2014. It was open to children aged from six to 12 who had experienced the loss of a family member through illness, accident, homicide or suicide.
On the first day, many children are nervous about leaving their parents or guardians. Lindsey, our education director, takes the time to learn about each child’s circumstances and welcomes them. Then, once they meet the counselors and animals, they start to relax.
Many kids haven’t seen farm animals close up. Their eyes light up when they meet our four-legged therapists. They’re encouraged to interact with them and help care for them.
One little girl was placed in foster care after her mother was murdered
As time goes on, the kids start to open up about their experiences. Some talk about the loved one who died or the life they’ve left behind. They begin to understand they’re not alone. Reading to the animals is a popular activity as many kids are self-conscious about their reading skills. But the animals listen patiently and never judge.
One little girl was placed in foster care after her mother was murdered. Hillside Farm became her ‘happy place’. She tasted chocolate milk for the first time with us. All the children have experienced tremendous loss – their ‘normal’ is gone. We try to give them the skills they need to make it through the tough times. To teach them whatever they are feeling is ok. We try to get them comfortable with having fun and laughing again.
The camp ends with a closing ceremony in our Children’s Memory Garden. They plant a flower along with a letter, picture, or poem. They’re planting their hopes for the future, for a new beginning.
The kids are hurt, so we hurt. When they leave, we close the doors and cry
Our grief camp has now expanded to three weeks and continues to gain momentum. There are so many children in crisis, and we have a waiting list. We’re now including children who live with addicts or have a parent in jail. Some have been sexually abused and others are in foster care.
The weight of circumstances surrounding these children is hard for all of us. The kids are hurt, so we hurt. When they leave, we close the doors and cry. But we’ve seen firsthand how the farm can help heal the most fragile of young lives. As long as there is hurt, the Children’s Grief Camp will provide hope. Children are remarkably resilient – with the right support system and tools, they will not only survive but also thrive.