Ronan Evans was about to go home after a weekend at summer camp. Before reaching the car he realized he forgot to say goodbye to his new friend. Turning back, his emotions overcame him and he pulled his shirt over his head to hide the tears.
“Ronan, it’s OK to be a man and it’s OK to cry,” said his friend waiting on the steps. “Men cry.”
“No. They don’t,” was the muffled reply from beneath his white cotton shirt.
“Do you think I’m a man? Do you think I cry?”
Ronan, 11, took his shirt away from his face and looked up at the six-foot-tall Marine smiling down at him and gave an affirmative nod. The two hugged and promised to stay in touch over the summer. Both counselor and camper left in tears.
This was no ordinary camp.
Camp Erin is the largest network of bereavement camps in the United States for children and teens between the ages of 6 and 17 who have experienced the death of a family member. It’s named for Erin Metcalf who developed liver cancer at 15. During her fight against the disease she met Major League Baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Erin succumbed to cancer at 17.
In her honor, Moyer and his wife, Karen created a network of camps where children can work through their grief in a healthy way. The first Camp Erin was held in Everett, Washington, in 2002. Today there are more than 40 camps in more than 25 states, including one in Canada.
The weekend-long experience is filled with traditional camp activities combined with grief education and emotional support.
Ronan’s first Camp Erin experience was in June 2011, outside Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was facilitated by grief professionals and trained volunteers from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). At a Camp Erin/TAPS Grief Camp, children who have lost a family member who was in the military can experience “good grief” with other children who understand exactly what they are feeling.
“Campers were teamed up with male active duty [and recently separated] military mentors to … act as their big brother at camp and do some of the activities their fathers might have done with them,” said Tina Saari, TAPS regional director. “It’s amazing how many of them, even the girls, want to go out fishing with the guys and do all those type of activities that they used to do with their fathers.”
At camp, children are divided by age and paired one-on-one with their mentor for the day. Many of the mentors have lost loved ones themselves.
Even before his sister Kim, a senior chief in the Navy, committed suicide, James Gobble was a veteran volunteer at TAPS Grief Camps. After her death, his participation in the program seemed even more meaningful.
Gobble had noticed Ronan at other TAPS events before, but he never had a conversation with him. On the last day of Camp Erin, he noticed the boy waiting for his mother to pick him up. He was looking down at a picture he held with both hands.
As Gobble approached, he noticed the picture was of the boy and his father, Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark Evans, who died in a Blackhawk helicopter crash in 2005.
Gobble approached carefully and said, “That’s an amazing picture.”
Ronan looked up and inhaled deeply through his nose.
“He has this look in his eye of content,” said Gobble assuredly. “I can see in your father’s eye how happy he was at that moment to be sitting there with you, and to have you next to him.”
Ronan looked down again at the photograph and back up at Gobble as if he didn’t see what Gobble saw in the photo.
“Do you want to hear a special story about me and my sister?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied Ronan.
“It’s one of my fondest memories,” explained Gobble. “Sometime in the late 1990s, me and my sister Kim went backpacking like 10 or 12 miles [into the woods]. We went to this site and the water was stagnant, so we began searching for water. I remember knowing she was there with me looking. It was her presence that I felt. I still feel it. We were both so content and happy to be in each others’ company that day.”
As Gobble’s voice began to crack, Ronan sensed his pain, leaped from his chair and wrapped his arms around the Marine’s neck. The two survivors squeezed each other for what seemed like an eternity.
“He just started crying so I hugged him,” said Ronan. “I just went over and hugged him ’cause I knew how he felt. I could just feel his pain ’cause I’d been through the same thing.”
As the two survivors held each other, Ronan’s mother pulled up to the curb.
Walking toward the car, Ronan began to realize how much he would miss his new friend. As he turned around to say goodbye, he covered his face with his shirt so nobody would see him cry.
Joseph Andrew Lee is the USO's staff writer.