Benefis childhood bereavement camps mark major milestones

Posted at 3:50 PM, Dec 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-15 19:00:04-05

GREAT FALLS — Making through the holiday season without a loved one can be hard, especially for children. A pair of camps that help kids deal with grief are marking major milestones.

For 30 years at Camp Rotary in the Little Belt Mountains, Camp Francis has been helping kids cope with the pain of losing a loved one. And for 15 years in the same location, Darcy’s Hope has offered grief services for teens.

On Wednesday night, those milestones were marked with memories and thanks.

Camp Francis was founded by Carol Holoboff, a nurse whose son Francis died three years before the first camp. Camp Director Kathy Van Tighem says originally there were skeptics about having the camp, but once it began the impact was immeasurable.

“We've had parents tell us that their child smiled for the first time since the loss of their parents while they were at camp,” said Van Tighem. “And so everything that we do from building relationships to the crafts to being out in the mountain, there is something that's just magical and really fosters and provides the best environment ever for grief work to happen.”

Child psychologist Chris Southall agrees. He’s been a grief facilitator at the camp since 1999.

“I used to say this to parents, as a child psychologist, I said you could bring your child to me for like a year of therapy, or you could come to camp for a week and you'll probably get the same kind of bang for your buck because its just such a powerful intense experience for the kids,” said Southall.

The evening also celebrated Darcy’s Hope, a retreat for teens who have lost a loved one. Named in honor of Darcy Lynn Dengel, a Mercy Flight Nurse who died in a 2007 crash. She was heavily involved with Camp Francis before moving to Sidney. When she returned to work for at Benefis she included a Camp Francis stipulation.

“She had it that she got that week off for Camp Frances. That was her saying I need these days. And it's not it's not an argument or a discussion. This is what I do with my time,” said Dawn’s sister Darcy O’Leary who continues Darcy’s legacy by serving as a grief facilitator at both camps.

Dawn’s son, Jackson O’Leary, is a Freshman at Great Falls High and was a camper at Darcy’s Hope. He said the camp helped him as he struggled with the death of his grandmother.

“Even just after one year, it really helps to go there and be able to talk and just be with a bunch of people that get you and feel the same way you do about certain things,” said Jackson O’Leary.

“It's okay to grow and to be happy again and to have those opportunities and to get to celebrate our loved ones while we miss them,” said Dawn O’Leary.

For kids who might be worried about going to camp, Jackson offers good advice.

“It's not as scary as you would think it would be, and everybody there is just as scared as you,” said Jackson.

The night concluded with a communal bell ringing and a sparkling cider toast to which attendees shouted, “Good grief.”