"One of the best things about Hope Camp is that kids get to see that there are other kids going through the same thing that they are," said Dumas Independent School District (DISD) elementary counselor Tonie Crawford about the program she brought to Dumas this summer to help children deal with the loss of parents or other loved ones. As a school counselor, grief counseling is not usually a part of her job, but "Grief impacts learning. If you are in grief, it is a hard time to concentrate," said Crawford. Children dealing with grief sometimes act out in school and have a hard time with their school work. Teachers gave her lists of children who had suffered losses. There were 40 children in grades one through six, who, Crawford said, were dealing with grief and trying to perform in school at the same time. She saw the need, but there was not a suitable program in Dumas to meet it. She knew that an organization called Hope and Healing, begun by two Amarillo school counselors, offered grief services to children in Amarillo, and she had always been impressed by their results. While the program was open to Dumas children, it was not always practical for Dumas residents to have to make repeated trips to Amarillo. Plus, Crawford said it was important for children suffering grief to build up support groups of peers who also understand loss. "If our kids went to Amarillo, they would be connecting with kids in Amarillo and not Dumas," she said. "So, I asked Hope and Healing if they would come to Dumas. They said they would love to have it in Dumas, but for a variety of reasons couldn't, but they said, 'You can come for the training, and you can bring it to Dumas.' So, I went to the training, learned it, and they gave me a curriculum. We tweaked it to work for our kids, and then we set it up."
When she approached DISD Superintendent Monte Hysinger about a place to have her Hope Camp, he suggested the art room of the Dumas Intermediate School. From June 10 through June 14, 17 children from her list came together with nine volunteers -- seven teachers and two older children who had suffered loss and been through counseling -- Crawford, and, for two of the days, Candice Kirkpatrick, program manager from Hope and Healing to get to know one another, discuss their feelings, and learn coping skills through a variety of group activities.
" 'We are not here to take it away (grief). We are here to help you process it and move through it,' we tell them. All of the activities we do, there is a coping skill we are learning -- coloring, music, art, talking with friends, getting to know other people," said Crawford. Group therapy is a large part of the program. Crawford says children are relieved to know that others are experiencing the same emotions, and they come to rely on one another for support. One activity that she says was particularly popular with the children was what she calls the "water balloon activity." The children write what angers and frustrates them on water balloons, and then they go outside and throw them at a hoola hoop. "Afterwards, a lot of them were really calm. You could tell it made a difference with them," she said.
Art is another big part of the therapy. The children make totem poles to memorialize their loved ones and bird houses dedicated to their loved ones that symbolize new life. Art teacher at the Intermediate School Kori Aragon painted a special painting on which the children placed their thumb prints or "heart prints" as they called it. Other activities taught the children that it is alright to laugh and cry to feel angry or sad, or even happy, despite their grief. "Everyone is in a different place in their grief, so we do not judge," said Crawford. "Our group rules are that what we say in here stays in here.
"We talk about, 'even though we have been through this, we are OK, we will make it,' " she said. Crawford says she can see the benefit the children from the program. "When they first started, they were really shy and not wanting to share a lot. Right now, we have kids who are bonding and making friends." On Friday, the last day of the camp, there was laughter coming from the room where the children were working on art projects together.
Crawford says children need to be at least eight weeks away from the death of their loved one to take part in the camp. "It is too fresh. They are not ready yet to start healing," she said. The children can attend the annual camp every year through the sixth grade. At that point, the can become volunteers to help the younger children, something that Crawford says is particularly valuable. "The little kids think teenagers are rock stars. They are very impressed that the teenagers have experienced the same loss and grief that they have." She says it is important that the volunteers who work with the children have experience with and understand the grief process.
Crawford hopes to grow the program in the future. She relies on donations to keep it going. This year, JBS, Valero, and others provided financial support, while Sonic, Pam Cox, Denise Cummings, Stephanie Schilling and others helped out with food. The volunteers helping with the children were: Nicole Armendariz, Betsy Villela, Mysti Truitt, Diana Reyes, Shawna Goodwin, Tonie Crawford, Minerva DeLeon, Lisa Hatley, and Pam Cox.
There is a saying from Hope and Healing in Amarillo that Crawford especially likes and that she thinks sums up the program best: "We are the tour guides through your journey of grief."