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Camp Courage helps area kids deal with the loss of a loved one

(Lathan Goumas - lgoumas@shawmedia.com)
Kris Drexler of McHenry kisses her 9-year-old son, Alek Drexler, on family day Friday at Camp Courage in Ingleside. Camp Courage is a weeklong summer camp for kids that have experienced the loss of a loved one. Kris Drexler’s husband and Alek’s father passed away from pancreatic cancer in April 2012. “It helped me feel happy,” Alek said when asked about his experience at the camp.

INGLESIDE – Joey and Gabriella Bitzer lost their dad in January of this year.

The 12- and 8-year-old’s lives were turned upside down with the news of their father’s suicide. Everything that was normal suddenly wasn’t, and few others truly understood their pain.

But for one week, the brother and sister were surrounded by 50 other kids who knew exactly what they were going through.

Camp Courage, a weeklong day camp for children who are grieving the loss of a loved one, wrapped up Friday as campers and their family members came together to celebrate the life of the person they lost.

“They learned that they’re not the only ones in this situation,” said Dina Cece, a Huntley resident and mother of Joey and Gabriella. “They have a community of all these kids going through the same thing at the same time.”

Children ages 6 to 13 spent the week at the YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside participating in games, crafts and emotional exercises that helped them grieve. Campers kayaked, climbed rocks, paddled boats, danced, made memory boxes and talked.

“We know that grief is a unique experience to each child,” said Mary Ann Green, grief support manager at Camp Courage. “But when you can talk to somebody else who knows what it’s like to lose a parent at a young age, it makes you feel less alone.”

For 19 years, Camp Courage has been a place for children dealing with a loss to come and express their feelings and meet new friends. The weeklong camp is free to campers and their families.

Joanna Bodigor, 19, was 6 years old when her father died from an undetected pulmonary embolism. She came twice to Camp Courage as a camper, and she was back this week as a counselor.

“As a kid, I remember playing around and everything,” she said. “[As a counselor], you have more experience. You can give more advice.”

Nathan and Mia Melchert lost their grandfather in 2012. The 11- and 8-year-old spent this week making new friends and remembering the life of the man who bought them both their first bicycles.

“He was very nice. He always loved everybody,” Nathan said.

“He could come to the carnivals and always buy us ice cream,” Mia said.

Nathan took the loss of his grandpa really hard, said Augie Melcher, their grandmother. She said Camp Courage was a chance to honor the memory of the man they loved.

“I have a grief group with people my age,” she said, having lost her husband years ago. “To have a grief group like this for children, it’s great.”

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