Sponsored by Mass General, Comfort Zone Camp provides grieving families with a fun day of connections, encouragement and coping skills.

Inside a school gym in Jamaica Plain, Mass. 75 children and adults are laughing as they create secret handshakes, draw pictures and share stories. It’s hard to believe this animated group is participating in a one-day program for grieving families sponsored by Massachusetts General Hospital, Division of Palliative Care and Geriatrics.

Comfort Zone Camp participants Yayelah (left) and Karen Wontan
Comfort Zone Camp participants Yayelah (left) and Karen Wontan

“It’s such a positive experience,” says Karen Wontan, whose husband died three years ago. “It’s too easy to feel negative about yourself. For a few hours here, my daughter Yayelah has some fun, remembers her dad, and thinks about her own strength.”

Vicki Jackson, MD, MPH, chief of Mass General’s Palliative Care and Geriatrics division, says it’s important for people to know the hospital’s care doesn’t end with the death of a loved one.

Caring for Family and Patient

“We are always concerned with caring for the family, as well as the patient,” Dr. Jackson says. “Grief is, unfortunately, another part of life, and it’s important to provide support to help family members as they find their way in the next chapter of their lives.”

Todd Rinehart, LICSW, a clinical social worker and the Palliative Care division’s bereavement coordinator, says the division provides a range of services and resources for families, including support groups, counseling, memorials and literature.

“The death of a parent or sibling is not only devastating, but also creates a great deal of isolation for kids,” Mr. Rinehart says. “Their experience can make them feel different from other kids, and at home they may find it difficult to talk about their feelings because their parent is also going through their own grief.”

Volunteer Rachel Hodgman, left, and Yayelah Wontan
Volunteer Rachel Hodgman, left, and Yayelah Wontan

Mr. Rinehart began volunteering with Comfort Zone Camp, a nonprofit that focuses exclusively on therapeutic programs for youth and young adults, ages 5-25, who have lost a parent, sibling or guardian.

Comfort Zone Impact

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources or staff to develop a program for grieving kids here,” Mr. Rinehart says, “but after seeing the extraordinary impact Comfort Zone Camp programs have on the kids who attend, I wanted to find a way to partner with them to extend our bereavement services to this broader population.”

At a recent Mass General-sponsored Comfort Zone Camp, Yayelah Wontan, age 11, was initially reluctant to participate, standing with her arms folded and announcing that she “just wasn’t feeling it.” But in less than an hour she was playing a game, suggesting to the group that people learn to appreciate what they have, and confidently standing in front of the crowd describing the details of her artwork.

The change, she says, came from volunteer Rachel Hodgman, a 34-year-old lawyer who also lost her father when she was young. “She gave me a hug,” Yayelah says. “Rachel knows what I’m feeling because she’s been through it, too. That helps.”

Every family who attends the program is paired with a volunteer “Big Buddy” who is matched by gender, hobbies and other interests.

Safe Space for Kids

Every family who attends the program is paired with a volunteer “Big Buddy” who is matched by gender, hobbies and other interests. Like Ms. Hodgman, they may have also experienced the loss of a family member, but that’s not required for a volunteer. What’s most important is the family and children know that this person is there to support them throughout the day. Together they participate in an afternoon of structured activities that combined fun and energetic projects with moments of thoughtful reflection.

The program is free to the families who attend and Mr. Rinehart says he would love to offer it more often and for more families if there was philanthropic support.

“This becomes a safe space where kids can open up,” says Christopher Wisnik, a clinical research coordinator in Mass General’s Emergency Department, and program volunteer. “They are able to share their feelings with people who ‘get it’ and know that they have support. They also have older people in the form of their volunteer who has experienced a similar loss. “

Paper chain: Participants wrote down their personal strengths, the strengths of the person who died and then words that link them to their family.
Paper chain: Participants wrote down their personal strengths, the strengths of the person who died and then words that link them to their family.

Darrelyn Jordan, who attended the Mass General-sponsored program with her 17-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, says her children have participated in other Comfort Zone Camp programs. Although her son was fairly quiet throughout the afternoon, Mrs. Jordan says the program provides a level of reassurance for him, and plants the seeds for something he may talk about later.

The Resiliency of Children

“One of the projects was making art that included images of things that reminded them of their dad,” Mrs. Jordan says. “By doing that, they were forced to think about him, and the things they wanted to include were different from what I’d been thinking of, so together we create a fuller picture. That’s the kind of thing they’d hesitate to get into with me, but in this context we can.”

“I am blown away by the resiliency of children,” Mr. Rinehart says, “but in order for them to tap into that strength they need to feel connected to a community that understands them.”

To support palliative care programs like Mass General’s partnership with Comfort Zone Camp, please donate now.