Each child went around the table, sharing something they feel thankful for.

“I’m grateful that I had such a good mom,” one teen shared softly.

Next to him, another wiped tears from her eyes.

At Camp Rainbow, tears are almost as common as smiles and laughter. It’s all part of the unique and meaningful way children process their grief.

“Children don’t experience grief like we do as adults,” said Leigh Ann Darty, director of the Rainbow Kidz Pediatric Grief Counseling Program, which has held Camp Rainbow each summer for 13 years.

The camp offers a blend of therapeutic and fun activities to meet the needs of children who need to cope with grief, but also need chances to just be kids.

Over two weeks earlier this summer, the camp served more than 90 children in grades K-12 with everything from counseling groups and equine therapy to martial arts, sno cones and a talent show.

The resilience shown by Camp Rainbow participants had a profound impact on first-time volunteer English Tsumas, who lost her own sister, Abbey, in 2009.

“I expected more sorrow and less joy at camp than I’ve seen,” Tsumas said. “At that age, to have the ability to speak their sorrow and share their story with sadness, and then turn around and be able to share in genuine laughter, is incredible.”

Tsumas said she has found meaning in sharing her own story during camp to hopefully connect with the children in a relatable way — and she has a new perspective on just how important grief counseling can be for the campers.

“Being able to use my own trauma to create a positive impact is meaningful,” she said. “I’ve spent every day since (Abbey’s) accident working through my own grief. I feel like what they learn at camp in four days is what I’ve spent 10 years doing.”

Another first-time volunteer, Maddie Fleming, lost her father when she was 15. At the time, she chose not to participate in Rainbow Kidz counseling, but decided to volunteer in support of her sister, Meredith, who is a Rainbow Kidz counselor.

During her time at camp this summer, Maddie realized the experience was impacting her as well as the children she was there to support.

“Little did I know, 12 years later, being a volunteer at camp would give me the opportunity to work through and process my own grief alongside these awesome and courageous kids. Camp Rainbow has taken a weight off my shoulders that I have carried for so long.” Maddie shared.

Maddie said she has also been deeply moved by the strength shown by the camp participants.

“Their willingness to be so open about their grief stories — the good, the bad and the ugly — is so brave, especially the children who lost their special person within weeks or months of coming to camp,” she said.

Of the children attending camp this summer, more than 65 percent have suffered a sudden or traumatic loss, Darty said. Those deaths include: 16 to accidents; five to overdoses; three to Covid; two to suicide; five to violence and 30 to medical/illness.

Forty children are dealing with parent or sibling loss, some having lost both parents.

“I am constantly in awe of the strength and courage — our special word at camp — that these children show as they deal with some of the most traumatic losses,” Darty said. “Rainbow Kidz is designed to teach them healthy ways to process that grief. We are breaking cycles and reducing risk for these children at a very vulnerable time in their lives.”

Nearly 80 volunteers from the community, including 25 Hospice & Palliative Care of Iredell County staff members, volunteer at Camp Rainbow and bring their own experiences, creating important bonds with the participants.

“It really is full circle with our volunteers,” Darty said. “It is families helping families. It’s the volunteer who can say, ‘I lost my mom too.’ Seeing how they are connected, how the stories are helping one another … it’s beautiful and it’s courageous.”


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the July edition of “IFN Monthly.”