As we spotlight New York Life volunteers in connection with Children's Grief Awareness Day, we sat down with one of New York Life's superhero volunteers, Mark Weller, to discover what he has learned about children's grief and Camp Erin through his years of serving as a camp buddy. Mark is a New York Life agent at the New York Life South Jersey General Office and a 3-year camp buddy at multiple Camp Erin locations.
Which Camp Erin’s have you volunteered at? In 2014, Camp Erin Albany; in 2015 and 2016 at Camp Erin Philadelphia; and also in 2016, Camp Erin Lincoln, Nebraska.
Prior to volunteering at Camp Erin, did you have an understanding of the issue of childhood grief and its impact on youth? Before becoming more active in the New York Life Foundation and attending Camp Erin, I had little understanding of how much childhood grief impacts the lives of children in our communities. The statistic that demonstrated to me the potential effect of unresolved grief on a child is the staggering percentage of individuals on death row who have lost a parent before age 15.
Before volunteering at Camp Erin, did you have an understanding of New York Life’s focus on the issue of childhood bereavement? I had read through a couple of grief packets that New York Life had created, but did not know much about New York Life’s involvement in the issue of childhood grief until the HBO special “ONE LAST HUG” was advertised on the New York Life agent’s portal.
What interested/inspired you to volunteer as a camp buddy at Camp Erin? On April 14th, 2014 the HBO special "ONE LAST HUG” was aired. I had recently returned from volunteer work in Haiti watching that documentary made me realize that these grieving kids are very much in need and are in our own backyard.
What keeps you returning to Camp Erin as a camp buddy? The reason I keep returning is for the children that have lost their fathers at a young age. Everyone connects with the kids in different ways, but as a 32 year-old man the experience is just that much more real because I am of similar age to the father they lost, especially the campers in the 6-10 age group.
You have had significant success encouraging your New York Life colleagues to engage as camp buddies at Camp Erin, how have you accomplished that? By sharing my passion for the issue of childhood grief, assisting with paperwork and logistics for my colleagues, emphasizing the impact we can have, including applying for volunteer recognition grants for Camp Erin from the New York Life Foundation (in 2016, my colleagues and I had a $5,000 grant awarded to Camp Erin in recognition of all of our volunteer time) and sharing pictures and the total grant amount received on Facebook.
Describe one of your most memorable experiences at Camp Erin. When we were driving back with the kids from the camp location in the Adirondacks, my Camp Erin Albany camper had to fill out his camper survey. I was helping him by reading all the questions. First question was, “How did you feel when you signed up and arrived at Camp Erin?” He said he felt “scared.” Then the follow up question came up, “How do you feel after attending Camp Erin?” He put “brave.” That was definitively my most memorable experience.
What was your favorite activity at Camp Erin and why? At Camp Erin Albany they took pictures of all the activities that took place throughout the weekend. They created a slideshow with the pictures and played music in the background. The most memorable moment was when they put on the song “Never Alone,” by Lady Antebellum. This was both an emotional and profound moment as we sat back and realized we had become a new family of close friends during a mere two- night experience.
Is there anything that has surprised you about Camp Erin and/or your interaction with the campers? How many times the campers mentioned how great it was to have a hot shower with good water pressure. It reminds you how blessed we are to have some simple things in life and how quickly those things can disappear when a parent passes away.
What part of volunteering at Camp Erin have you found to be most rewarding on a personal level and why? When you work in the life insurance and investment industry understanding the importance of presenting someone with products that protect their children financially.
Is there a message you would like to share with your colleagues at New York Life who haven’t volunteered at Camp Erin? In my volunteer experience, both foreign and domestic, volunteering at Camp Erin as a camp buddy is where an individual is able to have the most profound impact. You get the opportunity to make that child who feels so lonely at school, isolated because they feel like they are the only one who has lost someone, feel like they are not alone. It is amazing to see the reaction when a child hears that another child has lost someone as well. It ultimately allows them to feel safe, and for some enables them to smile again, perhaps for the first time since the death of their loved one.
To commemorate Children’s Grief Awareness Month, we share this and other stories of dedicated and compassionate New York Life agents and employees who bring comfort, hope and healing to grieving children in their communities through Camp Erin. Supporting bereavement services for children has become a part of New York Life’s culture and an issue that its employees and agents embrace as their own -- over half of Eluna’s Camp Erin locations have the support of their local New York Life office. Eluna is proud to partner with New York Life Foundation to raise awareness for the issue of childhood bereavement and the importance of supporting families experiencing grief across the country. Together, we deliver the gift of healing to children nationwide.