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Japanese Learn From Texas Grief Camp

Jennifer Rodriguez shows her scrapbook to Japanese studying grief counseling at Camp El Tesoro near Granbury.
Jennifer Rodriguez shows her scrapbook to Japanese studying grief counseling at Camp El Tesoro near Granbury.

By Shelley Kofler

Granbury, TX – For more than 20 years a Camp Fire USA program near Granbury has helped grieving Texas children recover. Now a group of visiting Japanese hope the program can help heal their children traumatized by the earthquake and tsunami last March.

Camp El Tesoro de la Vida, which means the treasure of life, offers all the fun things you'd expect at an outdoor summer camp: volleyball at the swimming pool, archery, horseback riding and camp sing-a-longs to accompany a great grilled cheese lunch.

But for these campers life isn't always so upbeat, and sometimes the fun is meant to be therapeutic.

Every child, age five to 17, is struggling with the loss of a close family member or friend. At this camp they learn to grieve.

Therapist: Who would like to go first? Tell us a little bit about the person in your life who died.

Camper: My dad died and one of my best friends died this year.
My dad had an overdose.

Therapist: And what happened to your friend?

Camper: He committed suicide.

In an open-air pavilion, Tatsuya Kanayama from Japan watches, as lead therapist Sherri Willis urges a group of five children to talk about their feelings.

Camper: I now put two and two together and know what he was doing. I'm mad I didn't know that before.

This is healing, American-style, something new and exciting to Kanayama.

He's the executive director of the National Camping Association of Japan. He and three colleagues are spending a week at El Tesoro to learn how group counseling at a camp might help Japanese children traumatized by the earthquake and tsunami.

Kanayama: It's a very confusing situation for the children

By some estimates at least 100,000 Japanese children were displaced by the March disaster. Many were at school when a wall of water carried away family and friends. Some children are now orphans or homeless, living in shelters, scarred by memories of what they survived.

Kanayama: Two-thirds of the children of an elementary school were washed away with the tsunami. They ran away to the safe place but many lost friends and saw friends washed away. Some children have nightmares and most of them don't want to talk.

Kanayama says school counselors in Japan provide individual therapy sessions, but the more relaxed, group counseling offered at El Tesoro isn't common in Japan.

Kanayama has been shadowing Mark Crowell who counsels and bunks with the middle school boys.

Crowell: Very rarely are middle school boys going to be able to sit down and say, "I feel sad." They aren't going to do that. So we'll create activities that allow them to identify those feelings with a bit of a distraction. We'll sit animals on the center of a table. I'll say pick an animal that best describes how you felt when you lost your mom or dad.

Crowell has learned the soul-bearing sessions might be uncomfortable for the very private Japanese people so he's suggesting other activities.

Crowell: The American culture is more open about talking about feelings than the Japanese culture. One of the things we talked about is using drawing more, talking less as a possible means through which those kids can express their grief.

Kanayama is impressed by a rock painting project that has helped 13-year old Jennifer Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: Those rocks we paint from the deaths of our families and friends. We paint a rock to represent them and we plant a tree and we put them around them.

Jennifer's rock, painted with a big yellow sunflower and musical notes, is inscribed with the name of Vivian her older sister who died in a mobile home fire.

Rodriguez: We get to lay all our problems out and our emotional stuff. Crying and stuff.

Reporter: So you feel better after you do something in memory of your sister?

Rodriguez: Yes.

As the Japanese visitors consider which techniques might be effective at home they're struck by one obvious therapy, the healing that comes when grieving children can talk to each other about their tragedies.

Recreational therapist Tamiko Kimoto says simply gathering the traumatized children in a fun-filled camp might be a good place to start in Japan.

Kimoto: Having a lot of fun is very important for kids and living together is very important for them.

Kanayama hopes his camping association can begin sponsoring grief camps for children by March, the first year anniversary of the disaster.

El Tesoro de la Vida Grief Camp Website

Email Shelley Kofler