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In the wake of 9/11 attacks, Richmond-based Comfort Zone Camp held bereavement camps in New Jersey for children of the victims
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In the wake of 9/11 attacks, Richmond-based Comfort Zone Camp held bereavement camps in New Jersey for children of the victims

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Comfort Zone Camp helped Katie Pereira cope of losing her father, who was killed on Sept. 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center. "Hit the dream!" Pereira said she joined the camp as staff.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the Richmond Times-Dispatch is running a series of stories all week in remembrance.

For a 7-year-old, it was a typical weekday morning in the Lalama household in Nutley, a New Jersey township about 15 miles west of Manhattan.

“My mom dropped me off at school, and my dad went to work like any other morning,” recalled Katie Lalama Pereira.

It wasn’t long before that Tuesday morning took a decidedly unusual turn when her next-door neighbor showed up at school to pick her up.

“It was very odd,” Pereira said. “But as a kid, I was like, ‘Oh, cool! I get to go home!’ — not realizing what I would be going home to.”

What she went home to was a house surprisingly full of relatives and friends. When Pereira walked in, her mother abruptly closed the doors of the television cabinet to hide the screen, before attempting to divert her attention toward other children who were there.

Eventually, though, the truth of what was going on emerged, even though it took her mother a few tries to find the right words to tell the youngest of her three children what had happened: The twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed after a pair of hijacked passenger planes crashed into them. Pereira’s father, Franco Lalama, 45, who had immigrated from Italy with his family at age 7, worked in the North Tower where he was manager of structural integrity for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Pereira’s mother, Linda, had spoken to her husband three times by phone that morning as the horror unfolded. The last time they talked, Franco said they had been told to stay put but that he would call with updates. There were no more calls.

Officially, he was missing, but Pereira recalled her mother saying, “she just knew he was gone.”

Later, one of Franco’s co-workers told Pereira’s mother that her dad had cleared everyone out of the engineering office on the 64th floor and then turned back to make sure no one was left behind. “Go ahead,” the co-worker quoted Lalama as saying, “I’ll follow.”

One thing Pereira does not recall about that morning is whether she said goodbye to her father before she left for school. However, Pereira, now 27, is grateful she’s had the opportunity to say goodbye many times since.

“That’s what I’ve been able to do at camp every time I go,” she said.

***

Lynne and Kelly Hughes founded Camp Comfort, a Richmond-based organization providing bereavement camps for children, in 1998. Three years later, the nonprofit had gained national attention.

One of its regular volunteers was a man from New Jersey, who had read about Camp Comfort in Parents Magazine. In addition to making the drive south to help with camps in Central Virginia, he had been encouraging the organization to hold a camp in his home state. In fact, the proposal to host a camp in New Jersey was the last item on the agenda of the organization’s monthly board meeting on the second Monday of September 2001. Board members tabled a decision.

The next morning, Sept. 11, the planes hit the towers.

“We knew then we needed to go,” recalled Lynne Hughes.

Less than two months later, a Camp Comfort contingent of grief counselors headed up Interstate 95 to hold a free, daylong camp for children who had lost parents in the attacks. (Having written about Camp Comfort since its inception, I was invited along to write about the camp for The Times-Dispatch.)

That Saturday morning, 14 kids and 10 parents showed up at the camp, held at a private school in Montclair, N.J., a dozen miles west of Manhattan. One of them was Katie Lalama Pereira. Her mother had read about the camp in a local newspaper and brought Katie and an older sister.

“After my dad passed away, I was very angry and confused,” Pereira said. “I was upset that he got taken away from me so quickly, and I was starting to think, ‘What is going to happen to me now?’”

The camp began with games aimed at putting the children at ease. In the afternoon, the counselors set up “healing circles,” and encouraged the children to share their feelings and stories. At day’s end, parents joined their children. Everyone held hands and said the names of their lost loved ones.

Here’s an excerpt from my story in the next day’s paper:

One circle set up in a corner of the school cafeteria, with the kids and counselors sitting on blankets spread out on the floor next to a Pepsi machine. Kids talked about being in school when they learned of the attacks. They described their hope and despair in those early days. One boy told of how his father’s body was identified by the inscription on a ring. Others have fathers still missing. Some spoke in voices so low they were nearly drowned out by the hum of the drink machine.

One boy, with a catch in his voice, said his father worked on the 105th floor and he recently had another kid ask him, “Do you think he was one of the people who jumped out of the windows?”

A tissue box sat in the middle of the circle.

There was anger — one boy asked why he and the other kids shouldn’t feel hate “if hate killed your dad?” — and there was confusion and there was fear, as more than one child talked about nightmares in the aftermath of September 11 of intruders coming into their homes.

Said one little girl, “It’s just so hard.”

The concept of Camp Comfort grew out of Lynne Hughes’ personal experience: Her mother died when she was 9, her father when she was 12, and there was no place for her to work out the loneliness and confusion.

Yet, despite the early success of Camp Comfort — its name was later changed to Comfort Zone Camp — there was trepidation as Hughes and the rest of the group headed to New Jersey: They had never held a camp outside of Virginia; their camps typically lasted an entire weekend, not a single day; how would they, as outsiders, be viewed by the families? All of this, of course, against a backdrop of a monumentally horrific historical event.

“It was such a faith walk,” said Hughes. Her first exhale? When the families began to arrive.

“You saw the anxiousness in [the parents’] faces,” Hughes recalled. “They were torn. They wanted to be there, they wanted to get their kids help, but yet they didn’t want to be there. They were two months into their grief.”

And then …

“The magic happened,” Hughes said, “and our program worked.”

For the volunteers, the “magic” involves not so much “trying to fix something,” but simply being present and listening and letting those who have suffered loss talk, said Ed Whitacre, a longtime Comfort Zone Camp volunteer who was at the November 2001 camp in New Jersey.

Whitacre, a licensed clinical social worker, wondered on the way to New Jersey how open the children would be to sharing their feelings.

“I remember the kids being very eager to talk,” said Whitacre. “They didn’t have a whole lot of reticence.”

Another volunteer, Jim Brady, was part of a healing circle where one boy drew a picture of the twin towers and used different colors to express his feelings. One color represented his sadness over the death of his father, one indicated anger about the attacks that killed his dad and another color symbolized happiness that he knew his father saved people.

“Just talking about that makes me choke up,” said Brady, who said the trip to New Jersey was “very, very emotional” from beginning to end.

The satisfaction of such camps is watching the transformation of kids who arrive with apprehension, said Brady.

“They leave so excited to know there are other kids who have been through what they’ve been through,” he said. “You almost see a totally different child as you leave.”

Pereira said she remembers the fun and games, “but the best part about it was I didn’t realize I was getting the grief support I needed because they did such a good job. You’re having fun one moment, then you’re having grief conversations the next. You almost don’t realize you’re getting the healing that you need.”

Twenty years later, Pereira can’t remember if she had been eager to attend the camp or if she went because her mother told her to.

“What I do remember is when it was time to leave … I wanted to stay because I finally felt normal,” she said. “I was in a place I didn’t feel so different from all my other peers. I was in a community of people who completely understood what I was feeling. I was not alone.”

Follow-up camps were held in New Jersey the next year and the next. Some of the campers, such as Pereira, returned year after year, and when they aged out of being campers — Pereira among them — they became volunteers. Some still volunteer with Comfort Zone Camp. Pereira is now on staff, as she was hired last year as the organization’s regional camp manager for North Carolina.

That first camp, she says, had “a monumental impact on my life.”

***

The New Jersey camp 20 years ago also had a unquestionable effect on Comfort Zone Camp, leading to more national attention and new sources of funding. It also proved the organization could take its camps on the road. In the years since, the nonprofit has held camps all over the country, and in its history has helped more than 20,000 children.

One of her particular memories of that camp was at the end. The mother of one child walked up to Hughes and said, “Thank you.”

“She had tears streaming down her face,” Hughes recalled. “She said, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen my child smile since his dad died.’”

Twenty years later, Hughes remains in touch with some of the kids who attended that first camp.

“They’re lovely adults,” she said. “The ones I know, they’re OK. That doesn’t mean they don’t have challenges, but they’ve done really well, and to think we were some part of their healing and their journey is really powerful stuff.”

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