Comfort Zone Camp serves bereaved kids

Comfort Zone Camp of North Carolina
Comfort Zone Camp of North Carolina

Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — You can, indeed, take it with you.

That’s the philosophy of Paul Holmes, who says his job and personal life have taught him that the loss of a parent or guardian can have a devastating impact on a child, including the loss of the family’s way of life.

“You have to change the house,” says Holmes, Raleigh-based managing partner at New York Life for central and eastern North Carolina. “The surviving parent has to go to work full-time or double-time. And you have to change schools if you move to a new house.”

The grief resulting from the death of a parent can damage a child in other ways as well, with research finding one child in five who loses a parent is likely to develop emotional disorders, says Mary Wolkomir, assistant to the president of Legacy Private Client Services in Raleigh and event director for Comfort Zone Camp of North Carolina.

Comfort Zone Camp, which is based in Richmond, Va., and says it is the largest bereavement camp in the U.S. for children ages 7 to 17 who experience the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver, received a $3.2 million grant from the New York Life Foundation in 2008 to expand to five regional sites with a total of 38 camps at the end of 2010.

Holmes spearheaded development of North Carolina’s first Comfort Zone Camp, launched last year as a one-day free camp held on a Saturday at the RBC Center in Raleigh and funded with proceeds from a golf tournament that recruited corporate and individual sponsors.

This year, the camp will expand to three days, will be held Dec. 2-4 at Camp Kanata in Raleigh, and expects to attract at least 100 children from throughout North Carolina.

And the Second Annual Comfort Zone Camp for Kids Charity Golf Classic will be held Sept. 19 at Brier Creek Country Club in Raleigh, with New York Life signed on as the title sponsor for $10,000.

Sponsors at the $5,000 level are Boca Raton-based IPC and Legacy Private Client Services.

“This is our signature event every year going forward,” says Holmes.

Wolkomir says each camp, designed with advice from child-grief therapists, is “tailored to the emotional and physical needs of a bereaved child.”

The camp includes age-based therapeutic group sessions and programs that are a mix of fun and traditional camp activities, all designed to build children’s strength and confidence, she says.

Campers also are assigned to “big buddies” who provide one-on-one mentoring, encouraging kids to take risks and show their vulnerabilities, she says.

Comfort Zone Camp is a “safe and supportive environment for kids where they can share what they otherwise might not be able to,” she says. “Bereaved kids, without the benefit of a healthy support system, are at risk.”

And that support system works, Wolkomir says.

At a recent Durham Bulls game, for example, she accompanied a young woman who had attended North Carolina’s inaugural Comfort Zone Camp last year and now serves as a big buddy to younger grieving children.

Holmes says he deals with bereavement all the time in his work, with New York Life last year paying out $30 million in the form of life and death benefits in central and eastern North Carolina.

The pain of loss also is personal, he says.

Holmes says his college roommate, Ron DiFrancesco, was the last person to leave the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, before it collapsed.

“I felt this was a way of giving back, of being grateful that he survived,” Holmes says of New York Life’s support of Comfort Zone Camp, “and also acknowledging those that didn’t.”

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