By Polly Keary, Editor
It was a big day for Sam Wirsching, but he didn’t know it at the time. He only knew he was going to a party for a girl he didn’t know very well.
But that day, he not only met the woman he would later marry, he met her younger sister, whose long struggle with cancer would lead him to 13 years of working as a volunteer in a camp founded in her memory by legendary Seattle Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen.
And this week, Wirsching will once again return to Camp Erin, where he will serve as a “Big Buddy” to kids struggling to heal from devastating loss.
“I got invited to her older sister Megan’s party,” said Wirsching, owner of Sam’s Cats and Dogs, Naturally in Monroe, remembering the day in 1999 that changed his life. “Me and Megan have been inseparable ever since. And I got to know Erin.”
Erin Metcalf was 15, and seriously ill. She had been struggling with liver cancer for some time. So grave was her condition that she was granted a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A huge Mariners fan, she asked to meet pitcher Jamie Moyer.
She got to go to a game and hang out with the team, and visit the famed pitcher and his wife, Karen. Both of the Moyers were deeply moved by Erin, and stayed in touch.
When Erin died two years after meeting the Moyers, they were struck by the immense grief of those who’d known her, and by the number of lives she had touched.
Erin’s passion in life had been children, so the Moyers looked for a way they could serve children in the young lady’s name.
“Jamie and I wanted to do something in honor of her memory,” said Karen Moyer at the time.
They decided to start Camp Erin, a three-day camp for children of military families enduring the loss of a parent or sibling.
“There were about 42 children in 2002 that very first year,” said Jen Gutzmer, clinical coordinator for Camp Erin, which is part of her role with Providence Hospice and Home Care of Snohomish County, which facilitates the camp for the Moyer Foundation. “We clinically developed what activities, rituals and support the kids were given.”
Children grieve in different ways than do adults and have different needs, she said. And so do children of different ages.
“I think the great thing about camp specifically is that we have developed activities for kids of different ages,” she said. “We separate ages 5-12 from teens. There is a different kind of care.”
That kind of care often involves non-verbal modes of expression.
“We know kids don’t have the same language we do,” said Gutzmer. “We do a lot of work with art, physical expression and movement. We use music at camp to find way to express, rather than sit around a table and have an adult conversation. And we have activities that introduce some of that vocabulary, so that kids can learn the language and learn to match that with the feeling.”
Also, kids benefit by being around other kids and adults who understand what they are going through.
“Kids often feel very alone when they are grieving,” said Gutzmer. “We want to provide education and tell them that what they feel is normal and it’s really a reflection of the love they have for the person they lost.”
The impact of the camp on the life of a grieving child can be profound.
One young girl, in a video about the camp, described losing her younger brother, who was 2 1/2.
“I loved him a lot,” she said. Her mother described the girl as broken down a lot, and angry.
“There wasn’t anyone around us who had lost someone like that,” said the girl’s mother.
“Many of the kids who come to Camp Erin are not sure that grief is something they can survive, said Cynthia Robson, Camp Erin Grief Counselor, in a video about the camp. “They are not sure that it isn’t making them crazy.”
But when the kids get to camp and find others going through similar experiences, they don’t feel so alone.
“I didn’t know there were so many people who had lost so many people that they loved,” said one little girl.
The kids learn about the stages of grief, and create luminarias decorated to commemorate their loved ones, and set them afloat on the water.
At the end of camp, they are often transformed.
“The difference in these kids’ lives is like night and day,” said Heather Sessions, a camp volunteer. “They leave with this expression of comfort and joy, and run out to greet their parent or guardian, and say they had a great time. And it was worth it,”
The Everett camp was so successful that it had doubled in size in two years, and the Moyers made a goal of setting up a Camp Erin in every city with a major league baseball team. Today, there are 42 camps across the United States.
At every one of those camps, volunteers called Big Buddies are key.
That is where Sam Wirsching comes in.
“Sam is one of our fantastic Big Buddies,” said Sessions. “We bring Big Buddies to spend the weekend with their cabin of kids. They help make everything happen. They help with movies, playing in the cabin, and spend the whole weekend with the kids. The kids adore their Big Buddies. We have had so many Big Buddies that have been great and Sam is one of them.”
In 13 years, Wirsching has been a Big Buddy 12 times.
Wirsching has learned a lot about how to help children cope with loss.
“There is training for bereavement and grief work and the most powerful thing is to give them space, and the kids being okay with not trying to fill that space,” said Wirsching.
When he arrives at camp on Friday, the first day is spent bonding with the kids. Each cabin has two adults at all times, and they get to know the children. Saturday is devoted to grief work, arts and crafts activities.
One of the most powerful parts of the weekend is the release of the luminarias on the water, said Wirsching.
“It’s on Lake Goodwin, and there’s a raft with a big star on it, and everyone makes a luminaria with their loved one’s name on it and light them and let them go. And they play music, like Sarah McLaughlin’s ‘I Will Remember You.’ And you end up like a wolf pack. They grieve and cry.”
That cathartic experience is followed by a pizza party or movie, and then Sunday camp comes to a close.
“Their parents come and get them,” said Wirsching. “And they are so excited to start the journey over. And they say, ‘I’m ready to go home.’ ‘I’m ready to go to school.’”
Wirsching will return to Camp Erin August 23-25, and for him, it is one of the most important things he does all year.
“It’s the most wonderful and awesome thing I’ve ever been involved with,” he said.
To learn more about Camp Erin, visit www.moyerfoundation.org.