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Thursday, Apr 26, 2018

Camp Caterpillar helps grieving children and families find solace, companionship and healing

KINGSPORT, Tenn. – Camp Caterpillar features the hallmarks of a traditional day camp – kids, crafts and other activities. But beyond the fun and games, something else happens: Grieving hearts find hope and healing.

Camp Caterpillar is through Ballad Health’s hospice program, and is designed for children, teenagers and families who have experienced the death of a loved one. The free, one-day camp utilizes social workers, counselors and nurses who help participants address their grief, learn coping strategies and share memories.

The next session for Camp Caterpillar will be Saturday, May 5, from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport. Children of all ages – from preschoolers to high school seniors – are invited to attend, along with their parents or guardians.

The camp day kicks off with a special shared activity for all attendees, followed by age-divided breakout rotations that help children express their feelings through colors and music, discover coping strategies, share stories and create memory boxes and other crafts.

Through each activity, campers are accompanied by volunteers who serve as camp buddies. These volunteers consist of Ballad Health team members, local students and church members, as well as previous Camp Caterpillar participants, who spend the day with the children and provide emotional support. They also spend individual time with any child who needs to take a few minutes away from the crowd to decompress.

Four-legged volunteers will also be available at each station. These dogs and their owners hold special certification from Therapy Dogs International and frequently visit Ballad Health hospitals to provide comfort to patients and their family members.

Meanwhile, adults will meet as a group to focus on understanding children’s stages of grief, learning how to respond to a child’s unique needs and coping with their own feelings. They’re also given materials that will help facilitate discussion and healing after they return home.

Children and adults reconnect during breaks and during the final memorial ceremony, which concludes with a butterfly release.

Though the event is a function of Ballad Health’s hospice program, most campers are referred to Camp Caterpillar from schools and other community organizations, and they have lost people due to a variety of causes.
“Kids come here from all kinds of backgrounds, schools and experiences,” said Patricia York, support services coordinator for Ballad Health’s hospice program and one of the organizers of Camp Caterpillar. “At first, the only thing they have in common is the loss of a loved one – but they very quickly become bonded by their shared grief.

“Most children don’t have any other friends or classmates who have lost a loved one, so Camp Caterpillar is their first chance to form friendships with peers who have experienced a loss. Watching these friendships blossom, from camper to camper or between campers and volunteers, is truly special.”

York also noted that even though many campers are grieving a relatively recent death, several of them come to Camp Caterpillar following another major life shift.

“Grief doesn’t have a time frame,” she said. “It doesn’t follow a straightforward path or ordered steps, especially with children. Normal grief is unique to the individual and varies depending on their age and stage of life. Regardless of the children’s current grief expression, Camp Caterpillar is here to assist them and also support and educate their caregivers.”

Camp Caterpillar is funded through Ballad Health Foundation, with additional support from local businesses and individuals. All camp activities, materials and food are free for participants and their families.

To register for Camp Caterpillar or to apply to volunteer as a camp buddy, please call 423-844-5252. For more information, please visit

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