Four years ago, two Austin residents lost an important member of their family and were struggling with their grief — before they discovered a Chicago arts program that’s helped them cope with the loss.
When she was 8, Anniyah Ward’s dad died in a car accident. Her mother, Tomika Baymon, said Anniyah was grieving hard and the counseling she was receiving at school didn’t seem to be helping.
Then Anniyah started participating in Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre summer camp “Hands Together, Heart to Art.” The program specializes in helping youth deal with the loss of a parent through various skills like acting, music, drama and dance, and by helping campers find alternative methods of expressing their emotions.
“I had a big issue with my father dying,” said Anniyah, now 12 and a 7th grader at Kipp Create College Prep. “I don’t like to cry in public , but I learned it’s OK to cry.”
She said it helped to be around children her age experiencing the same emotions because her friends at school didn’t understand what she was going through.
Baymon, 37, said she doesn’t think her daughter would be dealing with her father’s death in the same way had it not been for the camp.
“Camp taught her ways to cope; she picked up painting,” Baymon said. “Now when she gets in those moods or is struggling, she paints. Those are techniques she learned at camp.”
Baymon said the camp helped her as well because they have a family support group offered to adults that she participated in during the first two years Anniyah got involved.
“There was times I felt I couldn’t break down because I had to be strong for her,” Baymon said.
This summer was the third year Anniyah participated in the camp, which had two-week sessions for those ages 7 to 10 and 11 to 14.
Anniyah has two more years to participate as a camper, then she plans to come back as a junior counselor to help other youth deal with the same loss she did.
Another Austin resident, Lovie Twine, said the camp helped her adopted daughter through two losses. Twine’s niece, Shawntel, lost her mother in 2002 when she was just 2. Shawntel was then cared for by her grandmother before she died in 2008. Twine officially adopted her niece about three years ago.
This summer was Shawntel’s fifth year participating in the summer camp, and Twine said it helped both of them deal with the loss of their family members.
“[The program] is much needed for kids to deal with the of losing a parent or caregiver or whoever is responsible for the upbringing of that child,” Twine said. “A lot of times a person— especially kids—are not equipped to deal with such traumatic experience. I’m not even equipped to deal with that.”
She said it was good for Shawntel to be surrounded by other kids going through similar pain and learnng how to adjust.
“I saw that she was withdrawing even a year after what happened to my mom,” she said.
That’s when Twine learned about the program, which “has fostered a way for her to express herself. She’s 14 now, and she’s going into high school. This was a final transition for her.”
Twine said she didn’t feel capable of helping Shawntel, now attending Currie Metro High School, through the loss on her own, so also attended the adult sessions like Baymon did.
“It was an emotional challenge for me, so they helped me be able to help her,” she said.
Twine said she wishes there were more opportunities to attend similar programs in Austin, a neighborhood where people are getting killed far too frequently.
“Otherwise, we’ll have kids, in my eyes, with unresolved issues,” the lifelong Austin resident said.
Earlier this month, the camp celebrated 10 years of helping children through the loss of a parent. A special reunion was held at the Goodman Center in the South Loop, with more than 130 past and present campers attending.
Christina Bourne, director of creative engagement for the Auditorium Theatre, said over the last decade the program has helped about 900 children.
Though the two-week session may seem like a short period of time to work with grieving adolescents, Bourne said camp is like a bottle of pop: If you unscrew the top just so, the pressure is released. That’s what camp is able to do.
“And really seriously provide our campers with a space to look around and see that they’re not alone,” Bourne said.
Bourne said it costs about $1,100 per child, but because of sponsors, grants and individual donations it costs just $50 per child; and even then, if children can’t afford the free, they receive a scholarship.
“Because the motto of our camp is ‘we are for people who need it, not for those who can afford it,’” she said.
Brett Batterson, founder of the camp and executive director of the Auditorium Theatre, lost his father when he was 7. He started the program in 2005 after beginning to work at the theatre, never expecting it would help so many children.
Batterson said when his father died, performing arts helped him cope, and he wanted to give other children the same opportunity. The camp is a unique grief camp because most camps have typical camp activities that aren’t specific to art, he said.
And “we focus on one loss so we know everyone in camp is dealing with the same type of loss,” Batterson said. “No kid can feel like they’re the only one going through it. That’s really important.”