“Now, I don’t know any of your names,” Tim Henderson told the group of 41 kids seated in a circle. “So on the count of three, I want everyone to say your name as loud as you can: 1, 2, 3.”
“Nice to meet you, Markathydonterdarjadeshellantekim,” Henderson replied, “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
Henderson, who goes by “Toaster,” is a poet and musician who works as a teaching artist for Young Chicago Authors, a group that travels to schools and camps and clubs to foster creativity and expression in young people.
These particular young people, the ones shouting their names in unison, were gathered in a large rehearsal room at the Auditorium Theatre recently as part of Hearts to Art, a two-week camp for kids who’ve experienced the death of a parent.
Henderson had them write a 24-word story, then whittle it down to a 12-word poem, then compete in one-on-one poetry battles that got loud and spirited and, frankly, awesome, real quick.
“This is a place where they’re like every other kid,” camp director Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman said. “It’s a community for them to talk about it or not talk about it. It’s just, ‘You’re not alone. You are not alone.’ ”
The Auditorium Theatre has been hosting Hearts to Art campers for 14 years. Camp is split into two sessions: one for 7-10 year olds, one for 11-14 year olds. At the end of the first week, campers perform a talent show filled with the hobbies and pursuits they brought to camp. At the end of the second week, they perform a final production showcasing what they learned at camp — music, theater, dance. Because it’s heavily subsidized by arts foundations and private donors, most campers pay $50 or less for the two weeks.
“I don’t even think of this place as camp,” Konyae White, 14, told me. “It’s a place where people who can relate to each other talk and have fun and say and feel however they want. You get to think for yourself and think outside the box and use your imagination. Honestly, I never want to leave.”
White was 7 years old when his dad had a severe heart attack and died.
“When I lost my dad, it was like part of me left for a long time,” White said. “When I came here, that part of me returned.”
The kids have lost parents in every way imaginable, Illiatovitch-Goldman said. Homicide, suicide, disease, car accidents. Some were infants when their parent died. Some arrive at camp just a few weeks after their loss.
The Auditorium Theatre partners with licensed clinical social workers from Loyola University for healing sessions throughout the camp. Clinicians also meet with the campers’ caretakers to offer resources for trauma recovery.
“We have three promises — not rules, promises,” Illiatovitch-Goldman said. “Be respectful, be safe and participate. They all sign a promise sheet, and that’s kind of our guiding light. Anything else is up to them — you can be happy, you can be sad, you can be wherever you are that day.”
Some campers, she said, arrive with a fully realized love for the performing arts. Some have never stepped foot on a stage.
“I’m not worried about the final performance being good by the standards of other performing arts camps,” she said. “It’s about the performance being powerful by the standards of the campers offering something of themselves and just going one step beyond what they came in here with. It’s an opportunity for them to heal and grow through the power of opening themselves up and trying something new and experiencing that connectivity and community and expression that come through the arts.”
Cathy Nelson, 14, wanted nothing to do with it when her mom first proposed the camp. She and her twin sister, Teresa, lost their dad to heart disease when they were 12.
“I thought it was going to be a drag,” Cathy Nelson said. “I thought it was going to be two weeks of nonstop talking about your loss. That sounded really depressing.”
“When I first got here, I was really confused why everyone would be so happy at a camp about your loss,” Teresa Nelson said. “Then I started to make friends, and I realized why they’re all so happy.”
Hearts to Art arranges reunions for the campers throughout the year. Typically they meet for a pizza party and a performance; last year they watched the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. They also stay connected through Snapchat.
“Kids are very comfortable bouncing from thing to thing that they’re feeling,” Illiatovitch-Goldman said. “They’ll throw out, ‘My dad got shot in the head. Do you want some chocolate milk?’ They don’t always sit with their grief the way adults tend to do.”
Camp, she hopes, is a place where they feel unconditionally seen and understood.
“My dad died when I was 12, so I knew him not just as my dad but as kind of a friend,” Cathy Nelson said. “He was part of my identity, and I talk about his death kind of casually, like multiple times of day, as kind of a coping mechanism. I don’t think my friends here are weirded out about it.”
“It’s like family,” White said. “Old campers and new campers, they all feel like my family.”
Which is maybe one of the greatest gifts the camp can offer — the knowledge that family isn’t defined by blood or marriage or history. It’s defined by love, an infinitely renewable resource.
“There’s a real kindness among them,” Illiatovitch-Goldman said. “Love and kindness and acceptance that are unparalleled.”
It takes a whole lot of courage to create those out of loss. I watched 41 kids do it masterfully.