Six years ago, at the age of 12, Nicholas Calandrino of Brighton lost his older brother, Michael, in a motorcycle accident.
It was a devastating loss for young Nicholas, who on the verge of entering his teen years, was especially close to his 26-year-old brother he viewed as a hero and role model.
“He (Michael) was just his best friend,” mother Maria Calandrino said. “Nicholas told him everything- especially at that age. …There are just some things guys are supposed to talk to guys about and he was his guy.”
For the next few years, Nicholas went to counseling to try and deal with his grief, but his mother said the traditional, individual setting just wasn’t working.
“I knew he was struggling,” Calandrino said. “He couldn’t even go the cemetery and it tore him apart because I knew he wanted to go.”
At the age of 16, it was Nicholas, according to Calandrino, who decided he needed to try something different and asked his mother to help him find what that could be.
That was when the family found Camp Courage, a free, overnight camp specifically for children ages 6 through 17 in Livingston County who have experienced the death of a loved one.
And after spending two days surrounded by kids his own age who had experienced a similar loss, Nicholas finally began to heal.
“He started seeing how just opening up helped others too,” Calandrino said. “So, for him, that was the first step-- just getting the courage to stand up.”
The path to healing
Seeing the difference in her son was immediate, according to Calandrino, and soon after his first summer at Camp Courage, Nicholas was not only able to speak more openly about his brother, but was also able to visit the cemetery.
"He goes there on his own now, too," she said. "Even without me. He would have never been able to do that before."
Calling it more than just a “counseling session,” Calandrino said Camp Courage focuses on being fun and includes traditional camp experiences with bonfires, zip lines and other activities.
"But the kids are given the option of talking about their loss," she said.
Surrounded by people who understood his pain created a sense of “normal in an un-normal situation” that Nicholas, now 18, said brought him "a huge sigh of relief."
“I was really anti-social and I didn’t want to open up about anything because I didn’t think anyone would understand,” he said. "It helped me change my perspective."
For many of the campers at who attend Camp Courage, forgetting their loved one is one of the biggest concerns, according to bereavement counselor and camp director Claudia Nafsu, and is just one aspect the staff focuses on.
"We always work on memories and help them take the positives aspects or characteristics of the person who died and help them incorporate that into their lives so they stay with them forever,” Nafsu said.
The combination of traditional, fun camp activities mixed with the specialized focus of grieving and healing has proven to be successful over the years with Camp Courage helping more than 300 children and teenagers since 2008.
This summer, Nicholas will return to Camp Courage as a volunteer working with the younger campers where he hopes to help others grieve and heal just as he has.
It's an experience that just a few years ago would have been impossible for Nicholas to consider and credits his experience and the people he met through Camp Courage for where he is today.
“Without this camp I probably wouldn’t be as social as I am with people today,” he said. “It really helped me reach out to people who were struggling and tell them there is a place you can go and there are people who will help you.”
Ted and Jane's Camp Courage is an overnight camp and will be held July 13-14 and July 27-28, at the Howell Conference & Nature Center. Registration for Camp Courage is currently underwayand space is limited. Registration deadline is July 1, 2013. To register or for more information, call or email Claudia Nafsu at 734-327-3224 or firstname.lastname@example.org.