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Special bereavement camp will welcome children this September

When Maureen McGuire met the bus bringing her 10-year-old son, and 35 other kids, home after a weekend grief camp in January 2009, one of the first things Justin told her was, “Mom, I wasn’t the different one, I wasn’t the odd one. Everyone on that bus had lost somebody.”   

Justin’s father, Andy, died of lung cancer in February 2007. By that time, the family had already connected with Andrea Warnick, a counsellor at the Max and Beatrice Wolfe Children’s Centre (the Centre) at Mount Sinai Hospital. 

Camp Erin campers with major league baseball players
Amanda and Mitchell, representing Camp Erin Toronto campers, with Major League All-Star pitcher Jamie Moyer of the Philadelphia Phillies and Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells.


“Andrea came to us in the hospital, she came to our home, she explained to Justin about his dad’s cancer,” says Maureen. “She gave Justin the ability to say and do everything he needed to for his dad.”

The Max and Beatrice Wolfe Winter Camp was another, new step for grieving children.

“The statistics are approximately 1 in 20 kids before the age of 18 will have a parent die,” says Warnick. “Kids who have a parent or a sibling die often feel so isolated, and that’s one reason we thought camp would be so beneficial.”

The January camp was the first organized by the Centre, but its success has ensured that it won’t be the last. That’s because the Centre has received a prestigious 10-year grant from The Moyer Foundation in Seattle to host an annual summer grief camp.

Warnick, her colleagues and many volunteers are currently in overdrive, organizing the first international Camp Erin Toronto, designed for children ages 6 to 17. Camp Erin was created and funded by The Moyer Foundation in Seattle, established by Major League All-Star pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen. It is named in memory of Erin Metcalf, a friend of the Moyers who died of cancer at age 17.

Camp Erin Toronto, to be held September 11 to 13 in Muskoka, will complement the one-on-one care children receive at the Centre, providing an opportunity for the children to meet new friends and learn that they are not the only ones dealing with pain and grief. Fifty children will participate this year, and 70 the following year. The Children’s Centre is raising additional funds to supplement the grant from The Moyer Foundation.

“The Moyer Foundation is pretty fabulous,” says Warnick. “The Camp Erin philosophy is our philosophy. It’s about bringing kids to camp and having fun with them, but it’s also about building resilience and giving them tools so that when they’re grieving, whether it’s eight months or eight years from now, they can use these tools even when we’re not all together talking about it.”

Understanding what grief is and how it can make you feel is one of those tools; so is being able to call on meaningful ways to express your feelings. “Having the emotions isn’t bad, but if you’re lashing out at your surviving parent or at other kids in the class, that’s not okay,” says Warnick. “You’re allowed to feel mad at the world; you can punch a pillow or draw your feelings.”

The children attending Camp Erin will take part in typical camp fun, like sports and sing-alongs. They will also participate in grief-specific activities. “My boys did all sorts of things which, from a kid’s point of view, was fun stuff, but from a therapeutic point of view was very beneficial,” says Leia Spencer, whose sons, Cole and Evan, were 6 and 10, respectively, when their father died in August 2007. “They did skits, they played sports, they did crafts, they came home with sweatshirts that had everybody’s name on them.”

Leia admits to feeling some trepidation about letting her sons attend the camp. “The last thing I wanted was for them to have old wounds uncovered and for them to be upset, but when they came back they were so happy and excited and everybody was beaming. The first thing they said was, ‘Can we go again?’”

Maureen tells a similar story. “Justin thoroughly enjoyed the camp. He told me, ‘Mom, I was glad to see you, but I wish I could have stayed.’”

To the parents of the 50 children who will be attending the first Camp Erin Toronto this September, Leia advises, “Seize the opportunity. Put your fear in your pocket and let them go and they will be fine.”

For more information about Camp Erin or the Max and Beatrice Wolfe Children’s Centre, please call 416-586-4800 ext. 6664, or make a donation now.