MIAMI – Since 2009, a nonprofit group called Experience Camps has brought 350 grieving boys and girls together for a one week sleep-away camp experience.
The children who attend have all lost either a parent or a sibling and the program helps them build confidence, encourages laughter and allows the children to navigate their grief through friendship, teamwork, athletics and the common bond of loss.
"I just learned that it's OK to be sad and you can open up to those people because they've lost a loved one and they know what it's like too," said Elle DeOrsey from Palm Beach County.
Elle traveled to California to attend the first Experience Camp for girls in 2015. She was 2 years old when her father, Matt DeOrsey, died of a seizure. Elle's mom, Kim DeOrsey, was 8 months pregnant with their son when he passed away. This summer, that son, who is now 8 years old, will attend camp for the first time.
"This is one week she (Elle) could disconnect from everything, from me and family, friends, her phone and just focus on her relationship with her dad. One week where it was her and her dad," said Kim DeOrsey.
Experience Camps is currently held in New York, Maine and California. In 2017, the program is expanding to Camp Blue Ridge in Georgia to service children from South Florida.
"The kids get off that bus feeling alone and isolated, understandably so, but they realize that they're not alone," said Aron Weingard, who has been a counselor since the camp was founded in 2007.
The fundraising to send Florida children who have experienced loss to Experience Camps in Georgia has begun.
The cost to send each child is $1,000. To help raise money, Experience: Miami, 'A Night at the Races,' is being held Saturday, May 7 at the Sagamore Hotel in South Beach. Elle will be speaking at the Kentucky Derby styled event where silent and live auctions, southern-inspired cuisine and mint juleps will help promote the expansion of Experience Camps.
Click here to buy tickets to the event. Experience Camps is offering $15 off the ticket price using promo code "Local 10."
If you're interested in donating to Experience Camps, you can go to www.experience.camp or text "EXCAMPS" with your donation amount and name to 41444.
"Every dollar goes to sending a kid to this camp and we've noticed these camps have truly helped kids cope with their grief in a productive way, and taking that anger they sometimes feel and sometimes isolation and moving that into more positive feelings," said Brian Klein, who is a volunteer counselor and chair of the Experience Miami fundraiser.