SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8) — For many children, summer camp is a treasured rite of passage and a place to learn about the outdoors. But there's a special program in Vista that teaches a very different set of survival skills.
Lunch time at California Experience Summer Camp means chowing down while chatting it up.
"Meals are my favorites you get to really talk and mingle flew with people,” said camper Chelsea. “I'm a social butterfly.”
For the 15-year-old Chelsea the camp is about much more than just hanging with her friends.
"I'd been going to some child therapy and grief counseling and then I kind of stumbled on this camp,” she said.
Cal-Ex is unique in that the campers are bonded by one core thing: they’ve all suffered loss of a parent sibling or primary caregiver.
"When I was 10 my mother died of breast cancer,” said Chelsea.
“[They’ve all lost] a significant person in their life,” said Curtis West, director and camp counselor. “There are a lot of not-traditional families out there.”
The camp combines summertime activities with group and one-on-one counseling.
"Grief camp sounds sad, it sounds scary, they don't want to do it and then they show up and realize the focus isn't on that,” said Curtis. “[They spend time] talking and having those deep profound talks with friends and then shifting gear and going and playing dodge ball or swimming in the pool.”
“It's more summer camp than dealing with grief and by doing that it deals with it way better than anything else ever could,” said Tanner whose father passed away before he was born.
This is his fifth year attending Cal-Ex.
"It's just nice sometimes to be able to give each other hugs and like finally have someone there for you,” said another camper.
For the campers, Cal-Ex is one week of building bonds and breaking down barriers.
"This camp has really helped me have the mindset I can get better and this will be easier,” said Chelsea.