Nonprofit summer camp helps grieving kids


The Optimal Hospice Foundation Kids Camp helps children who’ve lost a loved one.

The two-day sleep-away camp celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer. For the dozens of kids who attend each year, it’s completely free.

“This place really makes you feel comfortable. It takes your mind off whatever you feel sad about,” said 12-year-old camper Gracie Lyday.

Lyday started coming to camp two years ago after the death of her papa.

“It’s that opportunity to meet someone who’s ‘just like me,’ and now it just removes that feeling of isolation that so many of them have,” said Cherie Shoemake, the Optimal Hospice Foundation director.

For a few days, kids can take their mind off their worries with activities like canoeing, rock climbing, and sports like hockey and frisbee.

“All of the things they’ve been doing while they’re here are all coping skills that we can use every day to deal with our grief, whether that’s meeting new friends or trying things we’ve never tried before,” Shoemake explained. “Getting on the rock wall is a great metaphor for our grief.”

Kids Camp takes a more subtle approach to grief support–healing through activities. 

“We do things like make memory journals. We do affirmations at night before we go to bed that are based around grief,” Shoemake said.

The counselors can relate. Dakota Greenwell, who lost her mother at age 13, has been a counselor for the past five years.

“We see kids coming in with an ‘I don’t want to be here’ attitude, and leaving not wanting to go home,” Greenwell said.

For children six to 16, two nights at the nonprofit camp comes at no cost. The Optimal Hospice Foundation brings together several local sponsors to make this possible.

With more donations flowing in, they’ve been able to provide transportation to the camp and add a one-day program for kids under nine. Most children are referred through Kern County schools.

“The big goal is to get them to see, ‘I can come to camp, and I can have fun, and I can be a kid, and it’s okay,” Shoemake said.

To donate to the Kids camp, call 661-716-8000 or visit They take referrals for campers year-round.

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