FELTON - At Camp New Hope Thursday, teens decided on a theme for their skit - "You only live once."
The campers understand the phrase all too well.
Everyone at Camp New Hope, a free, four-day camp run by Delaware Hospice, is coping with the loss of a family member, and the teens will perform their skit at a memorial service.
But the camp is focused on life, not death.
Vicki Costa, the associate director of Family Support Services for Delaware Hospice, said that grief is too often treated as black and white - but not at Camp New Hope.
"You can cry and laugh at the same time," Ms. Costa said. "You hold both equally important. Not one overshadows the other."
Camp New Hope meets at Killens Pond State Park and this week, 55 kids between the ages of 6 and 17 are enrolled. And the campers don't just talk about their feelings. They have fun. They practice rock-climbing, learn yoga, and go swimming.
On Thursday morning, the campers formed a circle around Robin Murphy, the camp director and sang the camp song, "It's a Brand New Day."
Then 12-year-old Jamie Ewell stepped into the circle to share a poem she wrote.
"I was up last night, and I didn't know what to do," she explained, "So I just started writing."
Jamie recently lost her grandmother, whom she lived with, to lung cancer. Her mother has also passed away.
"You're not gone, you haven't left. I still have you at night when I go to rest," Jamie recited.
"I'm sure all of you have a similar poem in your heart, too," Ms. Murphy told the campers. "If you like to write, that's another tool you can use."
Kay Meade has volunteered at Camp New Hope for 18 years. "These young people trust us with their tender hearts," she said, "Their tender, wounded hearts. And that's an honor."
Later that day, the Rev. Connie Perry answered questions anonymously submitted by campers.
"What is the meaning of life?" Rev. Perry read aloud.
"It is a gift that is given to us and we live it to the best of our ability," she answered.
The questions ranged from matters of burial ("What do you use to make a dead person's skin not so pale?") to the afterlife ("Does everybody go to heaven?").
Rev. Perry said the questions were not what she was expecting - "They were deeper."
And they were more challenging. One camper simply asked, "Why did my mom and dad have to die, when they were doing just fine?"
A hospice nurse, Marianne Guest, spoke too. "We birth into the world, and we get birthed out. That's what hospice is all about," she said.
Ms. Costa said that about half of the campers are from the hospice system. Camp New Hope is part of a year-round program; Delaware Hospice also counsels children in schools and homes and organizes educational workshops.
The camp, which is in its 22nd summer, is funded primarily through grants. There are also programs in Sussex County, at Trap Pond State Park in Laurel, and New Castle County, at Lums Pond State Park in Bear.
After the question and answer session, Ms. Murphy dismissed the campers into different age groups.
"We need to figure out how to move forward, and part of that is supporting each other," she reminded them before they left.
At Camp New Hope, said Ms. Costa, the kids are comfortable talking about their problems - they know they're all going through the same thing.
"I meet with every camper before they come and I say, give it just a day. You'll learn you're not alone," Ms. Murphy said.
Meeting new people is Jamie's favorite part of camp. "You can relate to their problems, you can relate to what they've done. It's great to know that other people have gone through the same thing."
Ms. Meade is a counselor for the 9- to 12-year-old boys. What touches her most, she said, is the support they offer one another.
"Boys aren't demonstrative. They don't break down and cry - but here they do," said Ms. Meade. "And the response of love and support is spontaneous."
Victoria Hyland went to Camp New Hope last year after her father died in a truck accident. Now she has returned as a volunteer.
"I couldn't imagine summer without camp. It's fun. And people are here to support you. I'm still getting the support I got last year," Ms. Hyland said. She counsels 6 to 9-year-olds.
"These little guys help me too. I say ‘Hug!' and suddenly they're all around," Ms. Hyland said. "Camp is sort of like a family to me."
Ms. Hyland says she's "a kid-magnet," and hopes to be a teacher one day.
"I just love being out here. The only downside is the bees," she said.
"I went to camp to make friends and have fun," said 9-year-old Lizzie Godfrey. Her favorite part was practicing on the climbing wall.
"I was really scared at first, but then the guy told me to try again," she said, "And I made it to the top."
And that's what Camp New Hope does. It gives kids the hope to try again.
Staff writer Eleanor La Prade
can be reached at 741-8242