Nine-year-old Abby Grace Kornek has a lot of fond memories of her dad.
She remembers a table he painted for her, cutting down a tree every Christmas, even the pick up truck the family rode in around town. All those memories she carries around with her on a pillow she decorated at Camp Dogwood last summer.
“It’s really fun,” Abby said. “You learn that it’s okay that someone passed away in your family, and it’s okay to be sad.”
Abby was three years old when her dad, Bob Kornek, suddenly died from a heart attack. In an instant, everything changed. Abby’s mom, Casey Pruitt, knew coming to Camp Dogwood would be therapeutic for her daughter.
“It’s a great resource for a grieving family,” she said. “Everything changes very quickly when someone dies. It’s nice to know there’s a place your child can go, that’s supported by the community, where they can learn to cope and they’re not alone.”
Camp Dogwood is a bereavement camp for children who have experienced the death of a loved one. It was started in 1997 and helps children in kindergarten up through the eighth grade, who live in Troup, Harris, Meriwether, Coweta, and Heard counties. The campers spend one weekend at the Pineland Sheriffs Camp or Camp Pioneer, off Young Mills Road in LaGrange, at no cost to the families. It’s sponsored by West Georgia Hospice.
“It’s hard for adults to deal with grief,” explained West Georgia Hospice Volunteer Coordinator, Tammy Forbus. “We don’t understand, it’s hard to process, and we have a lot of questions. Imagine a child with questions like that? Camp doesn’t have all the answers, but teaches them about their feelings. It’s okay to be sad and cry. They will always have their loved one with them. Being at camp also shows the children they’re not alone.”
Campers have counseling sessions and a “buddy” to work through their bereavement. At the end of camp, children write notes to their loved ones, tie them to balloons, then release them in a special memorial service. But Forbus was quick to point out, the campers also swim, ride down a water slide, rides horses, work on arts and crafts, fish, and make pillows, like Abby’s, in the Memory room.
“The kids have a blast,” Forbus said.”It’s not a sad, depressing type of camp. They have a ball.”
But it takes the staff of West Georgia Hospice and close to a hundred volunteers to make sure the children have the best camp experience possible. They help with the recreational events, counseling sessions, in the kitchen preparing meals and snacks, plus hang out with the children when they just want to talk. Forbus said some volunteers stay overnight in the cabins with the campers, while others can come and go during the day.
Casey Pruitt volunteered at Camp Dogwood, never realizing she would one day send her daughter there.
“You get just as much out of it as the kids do,” she said. “The volunteers are amazing. They open their hearts and pour out love to the children.”
Faye Wood has been a volunteer at the camp since 1998. Her daughter, Scarlet Riley, was a group “buddy,” worked with counselors, and stayed in the cabins with the children during camp for 13 years.
“It’s really rewarding,” Riley explained. “It’s not sad like you think it would be.”
“Helping kids that have gone through grief at an early age is a blessing,” Wood said.
Both women plan on being at the next Camp Dogwood this June. But more volunteers are needed to make it a rewarding experience for every grieving child, like it did for Abby.
“I think one of the things she realized is she’s not alone,” said Pruitt. “It’s okay to be sad. Life is about change. We’re all going to experience grief. It’s a normal thing to go through.”
“Our volunteers are the heart of camp,” explained Forbus. “So many of them help year after year. We’re so grateful that they share their time and love with these children. Camp is free to the children because of our wonderful volunteers and generous donations from the community.”
Camp Dogwood will be June 6 - 8. If you’d like to volunteer or know a child who may benefit from Camp Dogwood, visit their website email@example.com. Or call them at 706-845-3905.