Vanessa, Edward and Brian Morales always counted on their oldest brother, Alejandro, to pave the way in life for them and for their baby sister, Kendrah.
He would be the one to teach them what to expect in high school, to have his first date, or be the first to bend the rules.
That changed, however, when Alejandro became ill and was diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a life-threatening condition commonly called HLH. In an effort to treat this disorder, doctors at an area hospital performed a bone marrow transplant on 15-year-old Alejandro.
But his body did not accept the transplant, and Alejandro died in the hospital.
“His death caught us by surprise, because we never thought we would lose him,” said Delia Morales, the children’s mother.
Vanessa, who was just two years younger and extremely close with Alejandro, felt like the floor had fallen from underneath her.
As the family sorted through the devastation of losing Alejandro, a social worker at the hospital recommended JourneyCare’s bereavement camps for children and teens.
These free summer camps, called Camp Courage, help children and teens who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Participants explore and express their feelings in a safe, supportive and fun environment, led by professional counselors and volunteers from JourneyCare.
“She told me they would have a chance to talk with other children about their loss and learn that death is a normal part of the life process,” Delia said.
Vanessa, Edward and Brian were all apprehensive the first time they attended their respective camps. In addition to the loss of her brother, Vanessa also lived with bullying at school and feared other campers would judge her.
“Then I thought ‘What’s stopping you from going? If it’s simply not knowing what camp will be like, that’s a bad reason,’” Vanessa said.
Soon, the three eldest Morales siblings found themselves immersed in activities like hiking, high ropes courses, journaling and team building. And they all felt relieved to connect with other young people who understood the loss that their classmates at school could not.
Today, Edward and Vanessa are 19 and 17, and they have completed five years of camp. Brian is now 12 and still participates annually, while 7-year-old Kendrah may join once she is older.
The three eldest siblings say any young person who has lost a loved one should step out of their comfort zone and join a JourneyCare camp. Edward says it’s especially an important space for taking a break from smart phones and computers, and focusing on what really matters.
“Camp offers a way to express yourself and meeting people who have gone through the same loss as you,” Edward says. “I always think ‘What would have happened if I didn’t go there, disconnect and discover all these new things?’”