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The idea of being a Buddy appealed to Battalion Chief Bob Bradley of the Central Falls, RI, Fire Department and the pipe major for the Rhode Island Professional Firefighters Pipes and Drums. Bradley was on the NFFF website when he saw the request for fire service volunteers. “I had coached my kids’ teams over the years and been involved in their activities, but had never done anything like this,” he said. “When I saw it on the foundation’s site, it really piqued my interest.”
Bradley submitted an application, was accepted and attended the training, which he said was very thorough and answered every possible question. As the first day of camp got closer, he found himself feeling nervous. Although his wife and children were very supportive, he worried if he and his Little Buddy would connect. He wondered if he would he be the right person for this child. To help himself relax, he arrived at the camp early to help set-up and meet the other Big Buddies.
“All of a sudden the kids arrived, and I was the first to meet my Little Buddy,” said Bradley. “I was with the youngest kids and they were all very shy, meeting someone new for the first time.” He also met his Buddy’s mom at the same time and could tell that many parents felt nervous as well.
Holmes agreed. She said Lexi was excited about the idea of going, but got nervous after arriving. Once she saw other children her age and met her buddy, Lexi warmed up. But there was still some anxiety because she had never left Lexi with anyone other than a grandparent. The parents stayed at a nearby hotel for the rest of the weekend.
Soon after arriving, the kids and their Buddies went to a big field to play games. Bradley said this helped tremendously to take the edge off for everyone. Later, they went to the first Healing Circle to let the children talk about grief and share their stories.
“We talk very directly to the kids,” explained Shrock. “We’ll say, ‘We’re going to go to the Healing Circle and talk about how we feel about death and then we’re going to talk about how you felt about it. And tell us where you need help.’ You will literally see kids’ body language change within a few hours because everyone is on the same common ground. It almost neutralizes the fear.”
Following the first Healing Circle, the adults went to a meeting while the children played more games. Shrock explained that by alternating between serious discussions and lighthearted activities the campers and their Buddies are engaged and the experience remains positive.
Saturday morning, everyone participated in a challenge course that included navigating obstacles and climbing walls. The course is an extended metaphor to help the kids feel strong and safe and understand that they can rely on others to help them get through their challenging times.
“Being a chief, I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut during the challenge course and let the kids do what they wanted to do,” said Bradley. “It was really cool to step back and let the little ones make decisions. Watching them help each other and talking to each other was awesome.”
The children brought pictures of parents, stuffed animals or other personal items that reminded them of family to the afternoon Healing Circle. They talked more freely about their parent and were more willing to share their stories. They were encouraged to write notes or draw pictures to their parents. After dinner and a game of charades, everyone went to a bonfire to make s’mores, sing songs and put their notes in the fire so the smoke would take their messages to their parents. Following a path lighted with luminaries, everyone headed back to camp.
The parents returned on Sunday for a brief meeting in which the Healing Circle leaders shared the themes of their group. According to Shrock, the parents can also talk with their child’s Healing Circle leader about the details of what happened during the weekend, how their child reacted and what to expect in the days, weeks and months ahead.
“As firefighters, we show up at the worst of things, but then we pack up and walk away. We don’t see the aftermath of the firefighters’ funerals,” said Bradley. “These kids have to deal with someone who isn’t there anymore. To see it through their eyes brought it to a whole new perspective. The first thing I did when I got home was hug my kids, who are 23 and 21.”