Fire Politics: The Healing Power of Camp

L exi Holmes is a bright, curious and fun-loving little girl, just like many other young girls. She loves to read and would like to turn her playroom into a library. She pours her entire being into drawing, singing or turning cartwheels. She remembers...


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L exi Holmes is a bright, curious and fun-loving little girl, just like many other young girls. She loves to read and would like to turn her playroom into a library. She pours her entire being into drawing, singing or turning cartwheels. She remembers minute details from what she’s read or seen and eagerly shares her insights with her family.

Lexi is compassionate and sensitive. She knows just how to make her “Momma” smile when she’s having a bad day. Lexi also hates to see other children go without something they need or want. That’s why she insists on making goody bags during holidays for kids who could use something extra.

At such a young age, Lexi understands all too well what it’s like to go without something special or important. Lexi’s father, Firefighter/Paramedic Paul D. Holmes of the Douglas County Fire Department in Georgia, died in the line of duty in 2009, when she was just 4 years old. Thanks to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), Lexi and other children of fallen firefighters went to a special camp last year to help them find something special – a place where other kids understood just how they felt.

The foundation, in partnership with Comfort Zone Camp (CZC), introduced the Hal Bruno Camp for Children of Fallen Firefighters, a free, weekend bereavement camp in Virginia for children ages 7 to 17 that is named for Hal Bruno, the late chairman emeritus of the NFFF Board of Directors and longtime Firehouse® Magazine political columnist (see box on page 30). The campers shared their stories, learned skills to manage their loss and had time to reflect and remember their parents in a positive, fun and nurturing environment.

“This is something the foundation has wanted to do for quite a while, and Hal’s emphasis on taking care of family fit right in with this project,” said Linda Hurley, director of the NFFF’s Survivor Programs.

Lexi’s mother, Jamie Holmes, heard about the camp during the NFFF’s 2012 Fire Service Survivors Conference. Based on her positive experiences with the foundation, she was certain Lexi would benefit from the camp and meeting other children of fallen firefighters. Comfort Zone Camp was created in 1999 to provide support to children whose parent, sibling or primary caregiver has died. By meeting others with similar experiences and spending time with an adult volunteer – or “Big Buddy” – the children begin to develop coping strategies and build strength as they open themselves to a healing process.

According to Pete Shrock, CZC’s national program director, preparing for each camp takes 10 to 14 weeks. “Through the application, we learn who the child is, how they communicate, details about their grief experience and other needs,” he said.

It takes a team of four highly trained people – not a database – to identify a good volunteer Buddy match for the children. Then they are placed into a small group called a Healing Circle. Each Healing Circle includes a clinical therapist who works specifically with the needs of each group.

“It’s a very intricate process for matching and setting up the child for success,” Shrock explained. “We’re looking to create so much synergy outside the trauma that it makes the tragedy easier to talk about.”

Holmes agreed that the measures CZC took to match a Buddy for Lexi were beyond her expectations, and the other parents were very impressed. “The personalities (of the Buddies) matched the kids perfectly. They even resembled the children. It was astonishing for all the parents!” she said.

When partnering with a specific organization like the NFFF, CZC first learns about the culture of the organization and the needs of the campers. Volunteers are recruited and trained about the camp’s philosophy to create a cohesive team. “The entire program moves as one,” said Shrock. “We have to train volunteers to hold their truth because their experience is different than the child’s truth. No one is right or wrong. It’s just different. The child’s view has to guide them.”

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