NEGAUNEE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WJMN) – Michigan State Police and Camp STAR Children’s Bereavement Services has a close bond, and it’s the people who serve both that help make the grief camp for children a success.

“I got involved with Camp Star because in 2021 I went through my own grief experience and Camp STAR just spoke to me,” said Ashley Hernandez. “I have friends that have been involved with Camp STAR for many years since the beginning of 2012 when it came to be by Dr.  Larry Stenzel. He saw the need for this type of program in our community for grieving children. So, it just kind of spoke to me after going through my own grief experience and I really just wanted to be there to help others and especially kids, because it’s such a hard thing to go through as a child to have that grief experience and I wanted to be able to help.”

Hernandez is a secretary at Michigan State Police Negaunee Post and the program manager for Camp STAR.

“When children arrive at Camp STAR, they are paired with a volunteer buddy that’s around the ages of 18 – 25 and that is for some one-on-one support and guidance throughout the weekend,” said Hernandez. “So, they stay side by side the entire time and then each child and buddy are part of a small group of other children and buddies led by a leader and co-leader and they do a lot of activities together. We have a lot of activities where all of the groups are together so that provides a lot of opportunity for some group sharing and some guided discussion among the children. That’s where they really start to realize that they are not alone in their feelings and that it’s okay to be feeling what they are going through, and they have peers going through similar situations. We do a lot of art therapy on healthy outlets to have children get out those emotions and the feelings that they are feeling and ways to manage their grief through some coping skills. They work on a memory journal for their loved one throughout the weekend and that’s another great way to help with their grieving journey because maybe if they are missing their loved one, they can look back on their journal. They can see things that they’ve already completed or continue working on their journal and that might involve maybe writing a letter to their loved one or just writing things down that their loved one might have liked to do and that helps them remember. They can also take that with them home so that hopefully, they can work together as a family on these things also and so we have that very structured grief education and coping skills. We also make sure there is plenty of time for fun for these kids because that’s a hard part of grieving process is realizing that it’s okay to experience fun and experience joy after going through a tragedy so we do traditional camp like activities, bonfire and s’mores, hiking, swimming, there’s a frog pond at Bay Cliff where we get to have our camp out in Big Bay, Michigan so really just activities that get kids to be kids. Sometimes, it’s the first time that these kids have smiled or laughed since the death of their loved one.” 

One of the volunteers helping out this year is Michigan State Police Community Service Trooper, Tom Kinnunen.

“I’m going to be helping support the youth by listening to them,” said Kinnunen. “By participating in outdoor activities, camping, maybe basketball, hiking kind of stuff. Listening and to help them in any way in their grieving process.”

Serving the community one way in their day jobs, and another way through Camp STAR.

“The youth is our next generation,” said Kinnunen. “I want to help them as much as possible and let them know that help is here and they’re not alone.”

“Sometimes there’s kids that are just ready to go and they are all for it, and then there’s kids that are a little bit more reserved and a little bit maybe shy and a little nervous about it,” said Hernandez. “Then, it’s really quick once they get paired with that buddy volunteer and they start to do some of the activities and see that the other kids are involved, it’s a huge change and it’s such an incredible experience to be part of that healing process because grief is a never ending journey for these kids but we’re teaching them the skills that they need to help manage those.”

This year, Camp STAR is August 11-13 at Bay Cliff Health Camp in Big Bay. They are also looking for volunteers, especially male volunteers.

If you’re interested in learning more about Camp STAR, signing up a child or volunteering, click here.