200 Healing Hearts Camp offers help for grieving families
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER
Olivia Marino holds up her fish and smiles for the camera.
“That was a big moment for her,” Olivia’s mother, Judy, said of that day last June. “She was so proud. … It also would have been something she would have done with her dad.”
Olivia's dad, Michael, wasn’t an avid fisherman, but he would charter a boat and go fishing every now and then when the Oradell family was at the Shore. He died from cancer in November 2013 at age 47. His wife and daughter continue to try to forge a new path without him, while always carrying him with them. They are still grieving, still working through it, a process that has included attending Healing Hearts Camp the last two years.
Olivia’s big catch was one of the bittersweet moments that fill the weekend each year at Healing Hearts, which is run by CancerCare, an organization that provides free counseling, support groups, educational workshops and financial assistance to anyone affected by cancer.
Each year, families grieving the loss of a loved one to cancer head to the Malibu Dude Ranch in Milford, Pennsylvania, for a free weekend of therapy and remembrance ceremonies, along with horseback riding, arts and crafts, swimming, s’mores, fishing, basketball and more. Healing Hearts is for families with children and teens, and typically they have lost a parent/spouse. Sometimes it is a grandparent or possibly a child/sibling.
“No matter who it is, it’s devastation,” said Claire Grainger, a social worker at CancerCare in Ridgewood, who helps run the camp. “ ‘What happens now? What do I do now?’ … It’s just traumatic no matter who it is. It’s about rebuilding.”
The camp is run by the CancerCare staff of social workers (from Ridgewood and other offices) and a fleet of volunteers that includes staff family members, musicians who come help the teens write a song about grief and others like Michael Morrone, who became a CancerCare board member in July 2013 and volunteered at the camp for the first time in 2014.
That first year he asked his two adult daughters to go with him as their Father's Day gift to him -- the camp weekend fell on Father's Day weekend. He wanted to go, but the ride there was still filled with trepidation.
"You’re meeting families, some of which had lost a loved one within months of the camp," Morrone said. "I was scared to death. I didn’t know. I’m the tax guy. I love being on the board. I love volunteering. But I’m not a social worker. I’m not a doctor. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how I was going to perceive it, but I knew I wanted to do it. We just went with it and did our best. It was a wonderful experience, and I’ve been back every year.”
His daughter, Stephanie, a nurse who also happens to be an artist, has come back each year with him and wowed kids with her drawings of SpongeBob and other cartoons. The cause is close to the family’s heart -- the Morrones have not only lost loved ones to cancer, Michael is a survivor.
“I think we’re blessed that but for the grace of God, we could have been going to a camp like that,” Morrone said. “I don’t know if it’s changed me. It certainly reinforces how important it is to do volunteerism, how important it is to give back. … When you leave the camp that weekend, when you drive home, you feel like somehow you accomplished something. Some of the kids, they smile, they’re normal for one weekend.”
The program is designed for families whose loved one has died within two years, but they will make exceptions. Judy and Olivia Marino will be going back for the third year in a row this June.
“I actually wasn’t going to go back this year,” Marino said. “I told her last year, I said, ‘You know, give somebody else a chance.’ That was my feeling.”
Then Grainger emailed her and asked if they wanted to go.
“I kind of hesitated for myself but I asked (Olivia) and she immediately said, ‘I want to go back. I want to go back,’ ” Marino said. “I can’t say no to that. It’s been three years now. She had a very difficult time this year, actually. It was almost like a delayed reaction. So I think she needs it this year more than any other year.”
Olivia, who is now 9, loves the counselors at the camp, her mom said, along with Grainger and fellow CancerCare social worker Kathy Nugent.
“We help our families to work their way through this journey,” said Nugent, who along with Grainger organizes and runs the weekend each year.
Each relationship and loss is unique, but there is a common denominator among these families that often gives them shared experiences.
“With cancer, everybody was a caregiver for a while and watched their spouse slowly deteriorate and what cancer did to them,” said Trish Hoffman, a Hawthorne resident whose husband Daniel died less than two years ago. “Now I’m in a CancerCare spouse [support] group … everybody tells their story, and you’re like ‘Oh my God, I had that same thing.’ It’s just a bond.”
Hoffman took her daughter Doria, then 14, to Healing Hearts last year. They will be back again this year. For kids, who look around their towns and classrooms at school and typically don't see anyone else whose parent has died, meeting peers who have also lost a parent to cancer is an even more important connection.
“It’s just nice to be able to talk to someone that understood, that went through the same things so we can connect our situation,” said Doria, now 15.
The friendships made that weekend often continue throughout the year.
“She did make friends she still stays in touch with,” Trish Hoffman said of Doria. “I made a couple I still talk to. It is nice to have someone who understands, been through it, maybe something’s coming up and they have a way to cope with things.”
Along with their new friends, Trish and Doria found the weekend brought them closer together. For the Marinos, it was the ability to go beyond the large support group they have at home, to open up to people who truly understand.
Every year, there is a “resilience panel” when people who are many years past their loss talk about their lives now and how they got there. But throughout the weekend, families become each other’s example of resilience.
“Some of these families, the loss is very recent,” Nugent said. “I think it helps sometimes to see the families that have come before and see where they’re at.”
This year, Hoffman and Marino are likely to find themselves in that position for new campers.
“I did find myself last year telling people that I was at a point where I felt grateful to him and I was hoping that people could see that for themselves instead of looking at it like, ‘I can’t go on, my life is meaningless now,’ ” Marino said.
“I don’t want to counsel anybody. What do I know? It’s so personal for everybody, and I don’t want to be standing up on my pedestal and saying ‘Oh look how well I’m doing,’ because that’s not what it is. It’s kind of showing people there are little ways, but you have to be willing to reach out to people for help. It’s really hard for anybody.”
Healing Hearts Camp is a working dude ranch full of that needed support from professionals, volunteers and fellow families. It offers a weekend to remember and reflect on the family member who died and create new memories, too.
“There’s a lot of sadness,” said Nugent. “But there’s an awful lot of happiness and laughing.”