A Snapshot of the Camp Kerry Society

By Zoe Peled September 9, 2015

Wednesday, Sep 9, 2015

I am so pleased to be writing about Dr. Heather Mohan Van Heerden and Camp Kerry Society this month.  I have been volunteering with their Circles of Strength program for the last year and I am absolutely thrilled to be helping out at the retreat this weekend.  Music Heals has helped fund the society for the last three years and this year, they are pleased to say there will be eight Music Therapists present!

Check out campkerry.org and follow them on Facebook and @campkerry on Twitter to find out more 🙂

Dr. Mohan Van Heerden is the Founder and Executive Director of the Camp Kerry Society; a registered Canadian charity that specializes in providing support and counselling for young families coping with life-threatening illness, grief and bereavement. Heather worked for five years as a Counsellor and Music Therapist with the Delta Hospice Society and prior to that for 13 years as the Coordinator of the Lions Gate Hospital Family Bereavement/Expressive Arts Therapy Program. In 1997, she developed the first music therapy program at Canuck Place (Canada’s only free-standing hospice for children) – a program that is still in existence today.

Heather is a registered clinical counselor and an accredited music therapist with a Masters degree in Music Therapy and a PhD in Arts Education. She has been a Faculty member in the Graduate Counselling program at City University of Seattle and in the Music Therapy program at Capilano University and is currently an instructor in the UBC Department of Medicine (Division of Palliative Care). Heather has been invited to present her clinical work and research on music therapy, palliative and bereavement care at conferences around the world: in Canada, United States, New Zealand, Japan and Europe.

A: Tell me a little about Camp Kerry.  How did it all start?

H: Camp Kerry started when I met a young woman, her name was Kerry, she was in her early 30’s.  I was a music therapist at that time in the palliative unit at Lion’s Gate hospital and part of my job was to help support families, particularly families with children who were going through when one parent was dying.  Kerry called me and explained that she had been told that she was in the final stages of her 2-year battle with colon cancer. She then asked if I could help her and her family (she had 2 young children) prepare for her death. So I arranged a time to meet with Kerry, her son Hudson (2), her daughter Avery (4) and her husband Bob at their West Vancouver home.  We did music therapy for over a period of about six months and lots of different things and I think what was important for Kerry and her husband Bob about that experience was that they felt that it gave them some moments of quality and connection as a family.   When Kerry died, her family asked that money be left to my program.  They didn’t specify how it was to be used and the president of the hospital foundation called me into her office and said, “What would you like to do?  There’s been a lot of money left for your program.”  Right away, my thoughts went to this dream that I’ve always harboured which was, ‘let’s create an experience for people.  Let’s not buy something that can be used, let’s create an actual experience and take young families on a retreat who’ve had loss, and work with them using music, expressive arts, in a setting that gets them away from their daily life.’  The idea of the camp was just because I knew that that was a great way to connect people to nature, themselves, each other, all those things.  Our first project happened in the year after Kerry died, so in 2007, and we took 10 families for a weekend and it went so well that we started to think, ’how can we keep this going’ and Kerry’s family was obviously a part of that first retreat and very much wanted it to continue as her legacy.  We have been running camps every since that time but the program has grown exponentially so that now there are year-round supports. And music therapy is a huge part of our therapeutic approach, a huge part of these supports.  It’s not the only modality, obviously.  We do counselling and art as a part of what we do, and adventure and pet therapy and things like that but I think the heart of it is that it came out of this…relationship that was developed through music therapy with this family and next year will be our tenth year, so.. I went sideways on, “How did it all start?” (laughter)

A: That’s okay!  You kind of answered my next question!  I was going to ask what can someone expect from the retreat?  What kind of activities do you do at this retreat? 

H: So in some ways, it feels and looks on the outsides like a normal camp, in a sense that you bring your sleeping bag, you sleep in a bunk, you get to go swimming, you get to go hiking, fishing, climbing high ropes.  How it differs is that underneath everything we do, from the time that people arrive to the time that leave, there’s an intentionality and a purpose for every activity.  It starts with just engaging people, because people are often anxious when they arrive, so just getting people to know that there are friendly people around that they can talk to and connect with and no pressure, just really getting them to be able to be there and enjoy themselves.  The parts that are less visible are the groups that are run — we call them sharing circles — that are run by the counsellors and many of the group facilitators are music therapists.  There are many music therapists in the room leading groups and the purpose of that group is to give people a chance to connect with their peers and parents meet with parents, young kids meet with young kids, teens meet with teens, and all those groups are facilitated by professionals along with the support of volunteers.  So people can expect to have fun, they can also expect to find ways to express their grief, to meet others to help them feel less alone in their grief.  They can expect — sometimes, I think, especially with parents — learning how to reconnect with their kids through play.  So there’s the whole range of things that you would expect from a normal camp, but there’s this underlying sense of ‘we’re all here on a different journey but on a shared journey’.

A: So once that’s over, do you offer support to these families throughout the year?

H: There are a few different ways that we do that.  Over the years, the reputation of the camp has grown so that we get more and more referrals from further and further afield, so obviously the year round services that we are able to offer are primarily in the Lower Mainland.  A couple of years ago Josh created an online network so that every person or volunteer or family member, who’s over the ago of 13 who’s been to Camp Kerry, can be a member of that network and they can see comings and goings and what’s going on and if there’s an event, whatever’s going on, that it can be communicated.  So people who live far away stay connected that way and then the people who live in the Lower Mainland can participate in Circles of Strength.  Every two weeks those groups meet and create that ongoing support and we have a leader who is responsible for also tracking; if someone is having a hard time in the group and need to talk to her outside of the group.  They can call, they can make an appointment, they can talk to her on the phone.  The idea is that there is this a sense of ongoing community.  What happens in those four days at camp, is that people really make connections and then, you want those connections to continue.  These connections can happen between families, so you want them to be able to continue to feel that sense of support.  They do that in many different ways.  Some of it’s traditionally therapeutic, some of it’s more social based; we have people who just come out to the special events which are a couple times of year, like the DVD release (of the previous year’s retreat), or they get involved in different ways, but they stay connected to that sense of community through Camp Kerry that gets initiated at camp.  We also do a year round youth program.  Some of those teens meet at camp and we also take them on their own retreat and we do things where we say to them, “what do you wanna do?”, and they say, “we want to go on a picnic, we wanna go on a hike”.  We try to rally them up to do it all at the same time!

A: I heard recently that you guys open a branch in Ontario.  Tell me a little bit about that. 

H: We’ve had a few volunteers who have been coming to the BC camp from several years who have really kept talking to us about doing this in Ontario.  I grew up in Ontario so I was open to it and and I’d be there a couple of times a year anyway, so during one of those trips, I met with one of the people from this particular region of Ontario, Peterborough, which is about an hour and a half from Toronto.  Peterborough has a fairly major hospital for that region and so it ended being kind of a partnership with support from the hospital, a local hospice and basically one volunteer, who’s name is Shelly, who took it upon herself to fundraise.  So she said, “if we can raise the money, then will you guys come and do a project here?”.  We said we would and wanted to keep it small; the goal was for it to be 10 families so we did this project and we’re doing it again.  Ontario happens around late October and it’s the same concept; four days, three nights, connecting people who’ve had loss.  We’ll see where that goes.  We’ve also had another group from Atlantic Canada who are now talking to us about bringing the project out there, so their target date is for July 2016.  The idea is that hopefully there will be one in the middle, west and east, but the people from that community have to raise the money to make it happen, so we’re just learning about that as we go.  But it’s expanding.  And there definitely could be more in BC.   We’re maxed out at the camp now, we’re full.  We could be doing it two or three times a year.  We don’t market it, people just find us, so there’s huge potential for it to be bigger than it is, but running it as an independent charity — which I didn’t say.  We separated from Lion’s Gate hospital.  It started under that umbrella and in 2011 we got our own charitable status, so since then, we have been running in independently.  There’s just a lot of work running any kind of charities so it takes up a lot of time; finding ways to make it sustainable and keep it going so we do all the usual fundraising that people do.  We just, this year after three years of trying, got a government grant so that was really helpful, and then organizations like Music Heals and CKNW Orphan’s Fund.. So mostly small grants that assist and help and lots and lots of volunteers.  Camp Kerry would never be where is it without thousands and thousands of volunteer hours.  It would be hard to count the number of hours it takes.  For example, this camp that’s coming up;  a team of 50 volunteers for the four days, just for this particular part of the society, we’re looking at about 5000 volunteer hours.  So it’s a lot.  Again, I don’t know if I even answered your question!  That’s what happens to me late at night.  (Heather was amazingly accommodating and fit me in after she already sat through a few hours of meetings for the retreat.. At 11:30pm!!  Talk about dedication!)

A: No, you did!  So I have a few questions about you now.  Your background is in music therapy.  Do you do bereavement sessions with clients privately as well, or..?

H: Well, for another organization I was doing music therapy in bereavement and palliative care work so I don’t really have a private practice because I just haven’t had time.  Between Delta Hospice three days a week, Camp Kerry, and various teaching things that I do, I haven’t had time to do private bereavement music therapy work, but certainly have done it embedded in my hospice work and things like that.  Is that what you mean by private practice?  Sort of outside of Camp Kerry?  (A: Yea)  I guess I would say, no privately, but in another non-profit.  It’s a very big part of how I work.  I have a sort of strange background.  My Bachelors is in music therapy, then my Masters was in music therapy and my PhD was in arts education and then in between I did my counselling, so I’m a registered counsellor.  That means that a lot of the times when people are coming to see me, they are seeing me as a counsellor but it feels very natural to me, if I know that music is something that is important for someone, and it often is in grief work, then we just move into using music as part of the whole that I work with them.  That could be kids, it could be teens, it could be adults.  When I was running adult bereavement groups at Delta Hospice, music was always a part of groups in some form or another.  It may not be the whole group, but there would be parts where, either part of the ritual, much as it is in Circles of Strength, or part of actual work material, like have people share songs that had significant connection to their loved one and listen to that and have that in the group setting and then talk about what came from that.  So for me, it’s not one or the other, it’s very integrated into how I work with people.  So I guess it’s not private but it’s working for another agency.

A: What drew you to this work?  I know, you’re probably asked this all the time!

H: I ask myself!  (laughter) I think part of it is that it’s just a place that feels really natural for me.  The works feels like it matters.  It makes a difference.  It’s very much longterm work.  So if you come to camp this year and you meet families — well, you already know quite a number of them, which is neat, and you’ll get to know them even more through camp and as you stay connected through the society, you get to see people over a two or three year period.  You really get to see their growth over time and there’s something about that, seeing that transformation.  It’s their work.  We’re not making them do the work, we’re just creating the spaces where they can do it and that just feeds me in a particular way and it just feels like I’m doing the work that doesn’t feel like work.  It just feels right.  So why do I do it?  Probably a whole host of reasons.  I’ve certainly had my own personal losses, which I talked about in class and I would say, part of the motivation for starting Camp Kerry  was at the time when Baz, my husband, was sick.  He was quite adamant that I continue to create this program because he felt it was so important and so valuable and for me, being able to continue working and creating, all those experiences fed into it being meaningful and important and somehow something I could continue to do even though I was in the midst of my own, kind of, journey of loss and grief.  We find places where we feel that we really fit and also doing the job of running, being the executive director of the organization means that I’m using many different kinds of skills.  I get to use my counselling, my music therapy, my creativity, my love for teaching and the mentoring that I get to do with students and interns and volunteers.  Then I have to write grants and do research, so on many levels it challenges and uses lots of my different skill sets and I like working outside of the box.  You get to do that, in a way, when you get out of the institution and you are creating something.  Like, I have a lot of philosophical ideas about what kind of an organization I want it to be and so it’s neat to be able to shape that.  So lots of reasons.  And it’s hard work.  It’s tiring.  It’s exhausting; you’re never done but it’s really, really rewarding so I guess that’s why I do it!

A: It sounds like you make a huge difference in so many people’s lives, which is amazing.

H: And they much such a difference in mine, right?  As an example of that, every year we do a run that raises money, the Scotia Bank Charity Challenge, and every year Camp Kerry enters a team.  A few years ago, I decided I’d run the half marathon and I’m not a runner, I just decided I was gonna train and do it.  So I did and I don’t know how she knew I was doing it; a girl that I worked with after her dad died, she was about 11, and she was part of Camp Kerry and the Circles of Strength program, she’s now 20 or 21, she’s working in emergency services and she sponsored me.  She sent me a message.  She said, “I see that you’re running for Camp Kerry.  I want you to know how great I think that is!”.  It’s those kind of things where you plant seeds, you don’t know what people are going to do with their lives and then you get to see that.  I feel like if I make a difference, it’s also — I get so much back from it so I feel just really blessed to be able to be in that position.

A: So if people want to get involved as a volunteer or as a family to join the organization, either going to the retreat or the Circles of Strength, how would they do that?

H: Because we serve families from many different communities, and we’re not the Delta Hospice Society or the Richmond Palliative Care Unit; we’re not located in a specific community, so we’ve really tried to make the website the main point of access.  We do have a small office in New West and we have an administrative assistant there part time, so we do have a number where she’ll answer calls.  But basically, campkerry.organd people can navigate their way around there.  There’s a button for registration and more information on each of those programs.  You’ve already heard us talk a bit about launching some new programs this fall that we’re hoping will also take off.  One of those is the Camp Kerry community choir, so we’re really excited to see how that’s going to grow!

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