Michelle Hernandez lost her Dad when she was 15. Michelle and her mom were left to cope alone. Fortunately, they found Mourning Star in Palm Desert, one of the nation’s top grief and bereavement centers specializing in helping children, teens (ages 3 to 18) and their families develop healthy coping skills after the death of a loved one.

At first, Michelle was apprehensive about being in a room full of kids like her, but it wasn’t long before she became passionate about her Mourning Star Family. She and her mom went every two weeks never missing a group, where parents and kids meet with their peers. Michelle attended for three years. “Two of us were really distraught about leaving at (the age of) 18. We would joke with Pamela and Melissa and say we were going to show up at the next session boycotting because we were not ready to leave.” Pamela Gabbay, Mourning Star’s Director thought about this and decided it was in their best interest to return for another year, so they got to attend one more year. “I wasn’t done. That part of me was not yet healed; I still needed the center to learn to cope.”

That year, Pamela and the Mourning Star staff introduced Camp Erin, the weekend summer camp for grieving kids. It was the camp’s first year, and again Michelle was apprehensive. “I had just gotten used to Mourning Star, and the idea of a camp with 70 kids was a little overwhelming.” But with further encouragement, she and a couple of Mourning Star friends signed up.

It changed her life. “I had the worst thing happen to me and Camp Erin was one of my most life changing events – for the better,” she says. “I had grown up going to camp, but there is really nothing like Camp Erin. So much magic happens in that one weekend. You become a big family, tucked up in this corner away from life with no cell phone or other outside influence and you get to ‘just be.’ You are not ‘that kid who lost a parent.’ You get to be normal.”

The next year, Michelle returned to Camp Erin as a volunteer and this year will be her 5th. “I have been fortunate to be a Big Buddy for 3 of the 4 years, which is where you get to know the kids the most and you are on this journey together.”

Then, when Michelle was 21, her mom died. It was just a few months before camp, but not going was not an option. She needed to be there and the camp welcomed her with open arms. That year she “once again gained more than I gave.”

To Michelle, there is no better way that she can give back to the Mourning Star family. “I was given so much from both these programs and the people within them – even after I was no longer a Mourning Star kid. They have always been there, and there is nothing I could ever do to repay them.”

“Mourning Star and Camp Erin have given me the mechanisms to cope. I don’t know what my life would be like without them, and I can’t imagine what life is like for kids who are trying to cope alone.”

Mourning Star and Camp Erin are a part of the outreach effort of VNA California. Camp Erin is 100% sponsored through donations. It costs approximately $250 to send a kid to camp and attendees pay no fees. Donations are always welcomed. For more information on the programs or how to donate, visit VNACalifornia.org or call (760) 773-6260.

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