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Grieving girls find hope and healing at Circle Camp

Deanna Lee
June11/ 2015

Since attending sleep-away camp as a young girl, Sandi Welch has always known she wanted to bring others the same incredible experience that she had. “I was 5’7” in third grade, and I was different,” she remembers. “Summer camp was my haven. It was my community.”

It wasn’t until 2001, shortly after the World Trade Center attacks, that Welch saw a way to bring the camp experience to a population of girls in need. “I was speaking to the owner of the camp I attended in Maine, and she had two campers who lost parents on September 11,” says Welch. “In that moment, I decided to start a camp for girls who are grieving.”

Welch started Circle Camps for Grieving Children the following year, and now offers sleep-away camps at locations in New Hampshire, Maine and Cheat Lake, West Virginia—less than two hours from Pittsburgh. Circle Camps is for grieving girls ages 9 to 14 and is free of charge to all campers and their families.

During the girls’ weeklong stay, they participate in traditional camp activities like swimming, tubing, soccer and basketball. But Circle Camps also offers specific grief activities, which are led by licensed social workers and tailored to each age group. Twelve-year-olds, for example, create something called a “Bill of Rights for Grieving 12-Year-Olds,” outlining how they want others to treat them as they are grieving.

Activities like this one help the campers express their feelings and, importantly, share those feelings with other girls who have lost a loved one. “Everyone at camp has suffered a major loss,” says Welch. “The girls understand very quickly that they’re not alone in their grief. And that changes everything.”

Welch tells the story of one particularly meaningful thank you note sent by a camper that read, “My daddy always used to bring me presents, and I miss that. I wish I could tell him that the best present I received since he died was my week at Circle Camp.”

There are many more stories like this—girls who are deeply impacted during their one-week stay—and each is a testament to Circle Camps’ mission. “We give grieving girls a sense of community that lasts,” Welch says. “They come here and know that they’re not alone. And they learn that it’s okay to have fun during the day, even if you’re still crying under the covers at night.”

Every summer, Circle Camps reaches dozens of new girls, but almost all of the campers return year after year. Many of them even go on to become counselors, because, as Welch puts it, “We give them a home.”

There are still spots available for the Circle Camp in West Virginia, which takes place August 17-23. All campers attend free of charge, and bus transportation to the camp is provided from stops in Pittsburgh and in Morgantown, West Virginia.

To learn more or sign a child up for Circle Camp, email info@circlecamps.org or call Sandi Welch at 412-491-8151.

Featured photo: Circle Camp for Grieving Children, Photo courtesy of Circle Camp

Deanna Lee

Deanna earnestly covers all the people and events that make Pittsburgh the best place to raise a kid. When she's not writing, you might find her running the streets of the East End. cooking big meals in her tiny kitchen, and spending time with her family.