(Photos) Coping with grief: Camp helps Casper kids heal with horses

Savannah Carabajal, 11, pets one of Reach 4A Star Riding Academy’s horses during a Grief Camp on Wednesday, June 22. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

CASPER, Wyo. – Eight-year-old Zayne Rodriguez paused thoughtfully when asked about a favorite memory of his dad.

“When he saved my life,” he said.

Zayne remembers the hard crash on his scooter, and he also remembers his father, Daniel, jumping off of the porch and scooping Zayne into his arms.

“That’s a nice memory,” said Zayne’s mom, Stephanie.

Zayne’s sister, Laila, 11, drew a picture of her dad featuring his dark eyes and hair, traits she’s quick to point out that she shares.

Daniel died by suicide in February, and his family has been dealing with what was previously unimaginable loss and modesty.

Stephanie Rodriguez is overcome with emotion as she listens to her children, Zayne, 8, and Laila, 11, explaining their drawings on horses that represent their father during the Central Wyoming Hospice Grief Camp. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

“I tell them, it’s OK to be sad and OK to cry, but don’t let it keep you down … your dad wouldn’t want that,” Stephanie said.

To help process the loss, Stephanie enrolled them this week in the Central Wyoming Hospice and Transitions’ Kids Grief Camp at the Reach 4A Star Riding Academy west of Casper.

The three-day camp allows kids ages 6 through 16 to work through their emotions using group and horse therapy. Another camp is scheduled for next week.

Todd von Gunten, Central Wyoming Hospice’s grief care coordinator, said kids all process grief differently, depending on their developmental stages and personalities.

“They don’t understand death the way that we understand death as an adult,” he said. “We want to find ways to help them express what they’re going through emotionally, physically, spiritually, or how they just make sense of something that not make sense as a kid.”

Laila Rodriguez, 11, paints a memory of her father on one of the academy’s horses. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

Kids draw images and use storytelling to honor loved ones, and connect with horses to help regain confidence and trust.

“[Horse] Riding itself is a way to gain confidence,” said von Gunten, adding grief with children and adults is a complicated, years-long process that is never merely a “straight line.”

“If they learn the means of expression, and know what expression works well for them, then they have that to fall back on and won’t get stuck along the way.”

Mariah Butler, 16, poses with a neckless she made in memory of her uncle, Danny Dundas, during Grief Camp. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

There are some 15 children to a session, all experiencing their own situations. Some have lost parents, others uncles, aunts or grandparents, or maybe friends.

“The individual relationship with you and the person who died is so unique, and that’s what makes grief care so difficult and so challenging, is that we have to pay attention to what each relationship is,” he said.

Karol Santisteban is an occupational therapist by training who started the equine therapy program at the riding academy in conjunction with hospice.

Karol Santisteban, middle right, talks during one of the last activities at Grief Camp where relatives were invited to see art representing lost loved ones that the children painted on horses. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

“So this is a very [occupational therapy] based kind of camp,” she said. “It’s not doing therapy, we’re just providing an opportunity for them to engage in something where there are several kids who are struggling with the same kinds of things.”

“They try different things, and also meet other kids and know that they’re not alone in this, they’re not on an island.”

Mariah Butler, 16, attended with camp with her brother and cousin. Last September, she and her family lost her uncle, Casper Police officer Lt. Danny Dundas to suicide.

During the camp they made neckless with police thin blue line trinkets, among other symbols of his life.

A thin blue line flag is one symbol of officer Danny Dundas. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

“It was actually my mom’s idea,” she said. “But it really has helped me with learning new techniques on how to be safe and look at my surroundings.”

She’s still learning to live without her uncle, who she called “funny” and “a prankster.”

“It’s really hard not seeing him at family gatherings, because we did everything together,” she said.

Children are encouraged to play outside during the camp. Using play and activities with new friends is intended to help kids work through grief in their own way, according to camp councilors. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

Children are encouraged to continue to tell stories about their loved ones long after camp is finished. This is one way that helps to keep their memories alive.

On the camp’s final day, children painted a “brand” representing their lost loved ones onto the academy’s gentle horses. Relatives arrived by 3 pm to see the art and hear their stories.

One girl’s uncle loved to camp, represented by tents. One boy’s relative used raw eggs to make “the most disgusting” healthy smoothies. Another’s dad was represented by the Scottish flag.

And Laila’s dad had her eyes.

Todd von Gunten, Central Wyoming Hospice’s grief care coordinator, talks next to a display of photos of lost loved ones during the final day of Grief Camp. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)
Relatives arrive to look over the children’s projects on the final day of Grief Camp. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)
Maddux Dundas watches the butterfly he released during the final day of Grief Camp. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)
Relatives watch as children talk about their loved ones during the final day of Grief Camp. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City News)

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