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Granbury camp for grieving kids shares lessons with Japan

08/05/2011 11:06 PM

09/09/2011 5:23 AM

GRANBURY -- One day after an earthquake throttled Japan and sent massive waves of water crashing over cities, killing thousands of people, Tatsuya Kanayama wondered how his country would recover from such grief.

From his office in Tokyo, Kanayama, director of the National Camping Association of Japan, watched the death toll soar and began contacting everyone he knew, seeking suggestions.

E-mails poured in. One in particular caught his attention. It referred him to a summer grief camp in Texas, along the Brazos River, called Camp El Tesoro de la Vida. Its name is Spanish for "Treasure of Life."

This week, Kanayama and a team of officials from Japan are visiting the camp with plans to replicate it for children who lost relatives in the earthquake and tsunami. They snapped photos of children riding horses and slinging arrows. They observed daily one-hour group therapy sessions. They ate meals in the dining hall, slept in cabins and talked with counselors and campers.

Replicating the camp will be difficult, Kanayama knows.

The March tsunami has left more than 22,000 dead or missing. Thousands of people lost homes or had to leave them because of the accompanying nuclear crisis. And deep cultural differences between the United States and Japan, both in camping and in grieving, could make this camp difficult to adapt.

"In Japan, grief is something we carry by ourselves," Kanayama said. "It is not shared with others. We do not express our minds."

But Kanayama fears that the tsunami has left too much grief for people to carry by themselves.

OK to laugh, OK to cry

Ava Hastings jumped off a horse and huddled with her friends to chatter about the things that 11-year-old girls chatter about.

Hastings' dad, Brad Hastings, died in 2009 of heart failure. He was 44. Hastings had been a star linebacker at Arlington Bowie High School and Texas Tech University.

"My dad was famous," said Ava, who lives in Weatherford. "He was awesome. He liked to play and wrestle and tickle my brother and me."

This is Ava's third and last year to attend the weeklong camp, which she said she loves because it taught her she is not the only kid to lose a parent. Going to school or hanging out with friends at home can be tough.

"My friends will talk on the phone and say 'Hi Daddy' or 'Love you,'" Ava said, "and I wish I had one more chance to say that."

Throughout the week, Kanayama and his team visited with the 93 campers, listening to their stories of sadness and grief.

Most of the children at Camp El Tesoro de la Vida have lost a parent or sibling, although it also welcomes children who have lost a close grandparent or other relative. Ages range from 6 to 17, and most are from Dallas-Fort Worth, although some come from Oklahoma and Louisiana.

This is the 24th year of the grief camp, created by Camp Fire USA First Texas Council in Fort Worth.

Six paid therapists run the group counseling sessions, but the rest of the camp is run by volunteers -- bankers, teachers, business executives, nurses and college students.

Kids spend the week fishing, swimming, hiking, canoeing, riding horses, practicing archery, watching movies, drinking Coke floats, attending 1960s-themed dances and living together in rustic cabins.

"They learn it's OK to laugh, and it's OK to cry," said Gerri Dye, a software developer for RadioShack who has volunteered at the camp for 14 years. "We go swimming, and then we cry. We talk about what we're feeling at therapy, and then we go to archery."

Therapy frequently happens with little warning.

Camp director Denis Cranford, an executive at JPMorgan Chase who lives in Keller, was hanging out with a group of boys as they prepared to scare the girls one night. One boy asked the others whether they go to school on the date their parent died. One said he does not; he goes to the cemetery. One said he does, but he wears a black armband. They sat around and talked, eventually remembering their forgotten mission to scare the girls.

"For one week, everything they feel is normal," Cranford said. "They can be angry, sad, quiet. They can just be kids."

Alex Lewis, 12, of Burleson said camp provides an escape from the constant reminders of his father, who died in 2010.

"My dad used to take me and pick me up from school, so I think him every time I go to school," Alex said. "Everything changed after he was gone. Everyone at camp understands that."

Challenges in replicating

Standing behind a row of kids practicing archery, Kanayama snapped photos and shot video for a presentation in Japan.

In Japan, camping is not as common as in the United States, Kanayama said. Horseback riding is unheard of. Schools sometimes offer day camps, but entire weeks are unusual, said Tamiko Kimoto, an official who has experience in recreation therapy.

This will be just one challenge in adapting the camp, which officials hope to offer in March, a year after the tsunami. Another will be finding counselors and therapists with knowledge in camping and grief care, Kimoto said.

"Grief care is a new idea in Japan," she said. "It will be very hard to find therapists and counselors who not only understand children but also camp."

The National Camping Association of Japan is working with the National Council of YMCAs of Japan and the Asahi Shinbun Social Welfare Organization to host camps in three hard-hit provinces.

Stories of devastation abound.

Toshiyuki Fukuda, who works with the social welfare organization of Asahi Shinbun, the largest newspaper company in Japan, recalled one story of a sister who could not hold on to her brother as a wave tore them apart. The boy was not found. In countless cases, children at school were spared, but their parents were never found.

"How could children ever understand something like this?" Kanayama said. "So many were lost. Thousands are still missing. Others were left behind."

Camp El Tesoro de la Vida has been replicated in the United States, said Ann Sheets, vice president of administration and finance for the Camp Fire council and is on the board of the American Camp Association. After the tsunami, Sheets sent the initial e-mail to Kanayama about the camp.

Today, campers will say good-bye and plant a crape myrtle outside the camp chapel. Around the tree, they will each lay a hand-painted rock, 93 tiny headstones, to honor their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

And Kanayama and his team will return to Japan, where they will build their own camp for children the tsunami left behind.

Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056

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