A visit to Hearts to Art, a camp for children who have lost a parent

Davion is not on stage with the other children, talking, stretching, being put through the morning test at the Vittum Theater.

Instead, he’s lying on the floor near the hall door, silent, alone, facing the wall. But it is okay. Camp director Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman gently pushes the 6-year-old to get up.

“Come with me,” she insists, “I need you with me.” She guides Davion into the auditorium. He sinks into a seat, bringing his knees to his lips, watching.

In front of him on stage are three dozen kids warming up by rolling their shoulders. From diverse backgrounds – boys, girls, at least one non-binary child, ages 6-10. City and suburbs. Black and white, from across the economic spectrum.

But they share a harsh reality that turned their young lives upside down and sent them here to Hearts to Art, a two-week summer camp for children whose parents have passed away.

Now in its 18th year, requests are on the rise. The program, combining creative arts and consulting, is managed by the Auditorium Theater and takes place at Vittum. The theater, located in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, is part of Northwestern University’s Settlement House.

“This year we had record numbers,” says Illiatovitch-Goldman. “The amount of loss is greater.”

Both in Chicago and across the country. A pediatric study last year estimated that one in four deaths from COVID-19 – 250,000 and counting – results in a child losing a parent or caregiver. Between illness, accident and violence, it is estimated that 3.5% of American children have a parent who died before the age of 18. A 2-year-old boy lost both parents in the Highland Park shooting on July 4.

Junior counselor Noelle Hutchinson chats with Davion, 6, as other students play and dance during Hearts to Art, a summer camp at the Vittum Theater on July 11. The camp, run by the Auditorium Theatre, is for children who have lost a parent.

These children tend to feel isolated in classrooms with children whose parents live, children happily drawing their Mother’s Day cards, creating a void that needs to be filled with reassurance and encouragement.

“If children don’t have a supportive environment to express themselves or share their story, connect with that [deceased] person, there may be a higher risk of acting out behavior – maybe school dropout may be increased, substance abuse, even an increase in suicide,” said Lauren Raney, director of the program and art -Licensed therapist at Willow House, which runs childhood bereavement programs in Arlington Heights, Libertyville and Chicago.

It is an area of ​​life that many rarely stop to consider.

“A lot of people are nervous about dying and dying, when the camp is really full of laughter, full of joy,” Raney said. “He has those bittersweet moments, of course. Tears and sadness. But connecting with the deceased through art is such a beautiful experience.

Yet such programs are rare. Hearts to Art only runs for four weeks in the summer – there is a second two-week session for older children, ages 10-14.

“I wish they were available throughout the school year,” Raney said. “Other than us and Buddy’s Place in Western Springs, we’re kind of the top three bereavement support organizations right now. There aren’t enough programs out there; more is needed. »

Lizzette, 6, sits nearby as other children chat and play during Hearts to Art, a summer camp for children whose parents have passed away.

Lizzette, 6, sits nearby as other children chat and play during Hearts to Art, a summer camp for children whose parents have passed away. Lizzette lifted just one finger during the “five-finger check-in” day, an activity that gives students a chance to rate their mood on a scale of 1 to 5. She also said that she felt tired.

A sticking point is staffing. The jobs crisis is particularly severe in social services. Catholic Charities is helping about a thousand troubled young people – dealing with the loss of their parents and other issues – in Cook and Lake counties, and could help hundreds more right now if they could provide. vacant positions.

“We just don’t have the manpower,” said Hector Rivera, senior program manager of Child, Youth and Family Counseling Services for Catholic Charities.

As a result, children in need are turned away.

“We have long waiting lists,” Rivera said. “Some, three months. Some, six months. We have a program, it’s a year [wait] at present. We felt that, ethically, we had to put an end to putting young people on this waiting list, because it was not fair to them. ”

They are all looking for skilled counselors and youth workers like drama teacher Chazie Bly.

“We’re all going to take a painting!” Bly announces, skillfully managing the 30 children on stage in Vittum. “I’m going to play the museum guard watching this. As you all freeze in a tableau based on a theme you choose. If I catch you moving, you have to melt to the ground. . . Alright everyone, pick a section of the stage, arms outstretched!”

Children choose dinosaurs.

“Strike a dinosaur pose in five, four, three, two, one!” Bly gets excited, then tries to break their concentration.

“What kind of dinosaur are you? he asks Lizzette, 6, who remains frozen.

“This one’s the real deal,” he tells the group, admiringly.

Chazie Bly (centre) warms up children early in the day on July 11 at Hearts to Art, a summer camp for children whose parents have passed away.

Chazie Bly (centre) warms up children early in the day on July 11 at Hearts to Art, a summer camp for children whose parents have passed away. It is held at the Vittum Theater in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood and is run by the Auditorium Theatre.

Even when she’s not performing, however, Lizzette has a dark, thousand-yard stare that stands out. While most of the children are laughing and clapping, she will stand there motionless with a blank face. She says she is tired.

The acting on stage dissolves in laughter, applause, general uproar.

The only ground rule for visitors is that campers should not be questioned about their loss.

“A lot of recent stuff has happened,” is the closest we can say. Davion sits watching the other kids having fun.

How is the camp?

“Chickens,” Davion says enigmatically.

Are “chickens” good or bad?

“Good,” he replies. “If I say ‘good chickens’, I mean good. If I say “bad chickens”, it means bad. »

Although the camp is good chickens, it does not go on stage.

“I don’t want to do it,” he announces. “It’s booooooooooooooooooooooooooo.”

“Davion, they’re doing another round,” Illiatovitch-Goldman asks. “Do you want to try?”

“No no no.”

“OKAY.”

Councilor Kierra Towns, 25, who lost her mother as a child, chats with Mia as other children play during Hearts to Art summer camp on July 11.

Councilor Kierra Towns, 25, who lost her mother as a child, chats with Mia as other children play during Hearts to Art summer camp on July 11. The camp, run by the Auditorium Theater and held at the Vittum Theater in West Town, is for children whose parents have passed away. “Camp feels like home,” Towns says. “Camp showed me that there can be joy through sadness.”

Illiatovitch-Goldman goes on stage, for some announcements. Today is Monday, the start of the second week.

“My heart was exploding, you are all so beautiful and brilliant,” she begins. “Before we get into the camp song and dance, let’s do a five-finger check-in. Let’s see where we are this morning. On a scale of five, one being the worst, five being the best, let’s see where we stand, folks? I see zeros, I see threes, I see just about every number. OK, so that’s cool, that’s fine, I’ll send you some love if you need it. Don’t forget that we have people to talk to if you want, one-on-one. We have lots and lots of support.

As she speaks, three girls sit near group leader Grace Law, holding her hands, draping themselves over her, touching her nose.

“When you lose someone, sometimes you just need that little extra touch or that little extra piece of love,” says Law, 24, who lost his father two weeks after his 11th birthday the same year. where she started at Hearts to Art. “I remember when I was a camper, that physical contact is what made this place feel safe.”

When former campers like Law return as leaders, their experiences help them be sensitive to what the campers are going through.

“I remember my first day at camp, I said to my mom, ‘I’m not coming here, I’m not going to talk, I don’t want to be in camp,'” Law, now a college student, said. University of North Carolina-Wilmington. “‘I want to be normal, I want to be a normal kid, I want to pretend my dad isn’t dead.’ And then, all of a sudden, we were playing a game, and everything changed, and I realized: I’m not alone. Neither are these campers. … This camp has changed my life. saved my life, and I feel like it saves a ton of lives. I don’t know where I would be without this place.

It would be too much of a stretch to conclude a visit with Davion onstage, energetically participating – which he does. Or to observe that Lizzette, questioned about the camp, offers a timid nudge. The loss of a parent is permanent, a hole that must be filled forever.

“It’s really scary, when your parent dies, there’s just this empty hole, and you have to grow up,” Law says. “The second that happens, part of your childhood ends. That’s one of the reasons this camp is amazing, because you get that part of your childhood back.

Lizzette, 6, holds hands with councilor Kierra Towns, 25, during Hearts to Art, a summer camp for children whose parents have passed away.

Lizzette, 6, holds hands with councilor Kierra Towns, 25, during Hearts to Art, a summer camp for children whose parents have passed away. The camp takes place at the Vittum Theater.

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