Circle of friends

Circle of friends

Above, Circle Campers inscribe rocks with messages to their deceased parents, which they then place in “memory gardens.” Circle Campers participate in the same kinds of activities as any other camper, including jumping en masse into a lake.  (Photos courtesy of Sandi Lando Welch)
Above, Circle Campers inscribe rocks with messages to their deceased parents, which they then place in “memory gardens.” Circle Campers participate in the same kinds of activities as any other camper, including jumping en masse into a lake. (Photos courtesy of Sandi Lando Welch)

Sandi Lando Welch is one of those people whose life was shaped, in large part, by her summers at sleep-away camp.

Welch, a Pittsburgh native, spent 10 years at Camp Tapawingo in Sweden, Maine, first as a camper, then as a counselor.

The camaraderie she experienced there affected her so deeply, that she left at age 21 with a profound desire to help other girls feel what she felt.

The morning after Sept. 11, 2001, she finally realized how — and for whom — she would do that.

“I was speaking to the owner of Camp Tapawingo on Sept. 12, and she told me that two of the campers had lost their mothers in the attacks,” Welch said. “When I heard that, I was like a character in a comic book where the light bulb goes off.”

Welch knew then and there that she wanted to establish a free camp for grieving girls who could feel comfortable in a community where everyone was coping with the devastating loss of a parent, while still participating in typical camp activities.

And so she got busy seeking out grants. Three weeks later, she was in business.

Circle Camps for Grieving Children was launched the following summer, with its pilot program at Camp Tapawingo. It drew 32 children and 26 volunteer counselors.

The camp has since expanded to serve 300 girls in locations from Malibu, Calif., to Fitzwilliam, N.H.

This summer will mark its first session on the grounds of Emma Kaufmann Camp of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Morgantown, W.Va.  

“I was so caught up with Sandi’s commitment to this program,” said Rachel Marcus, associate executive director of the JCC. “I was just blown away with her passion for this camp.

“And we certainly have the right facility to provide those kids with a home away from home,” Marcus added.

EKC is allowing Circle Camps to use its facilities free of charge, Welch said. Busing to the camp will be provided from Pittsburgh, Morgantown and Charleston, W.Va.

Circle of EKC will run from Aug. 17 to 22, after the regular camp sessions have concluded.

“We never go into a camp where we would have to share it with anyone else,” Welch said. “We create a family at camp. By dinner on the first night, you would think these kids had been together for a week.”

Campers are accepted in the program on a need-blind basis. The only criterion is that the girls are emotionally stable enough to be away from home for a week, Welch said.

Circle campers typically have the opportunity to stay with Circle for nine summers, beginning at age 9 in the Camper Program, moving into the Teen Program at age 13, applying to the CIT program at age 15, followed by a two-year Leadership Program at age 17. At age 19, former campers return as counselors.

This summer, Circle of EKC will host 40 campers supported by 25 volunteers.

One of those volunteers, Linda Simon, who along with Lynn Zelenski helped facilitate the arrangement between Circle Camps and EKC, will serve as a counselor at the West Virginia camp.

“Circle Camp combined my passion for the JCC with a new passion,” Simon said. “Lynn [Zelenski] and I will help Sandi run the camp, too, working on development and fundraising for Pittsburgh.”

Simon has no experience in working with grieving children, but she will be trained along with the other volunteer counselors by a social worker the day before the girls arrive.

“But this is not a therapeutic camp,” Simon stressed. “It’s a camp where kids can have fun and get away from it all, and not be ‘that girl.’ It’s a place where they can share the loss of their parents, and how that happened, in a natural way, not in a therapy group.”

While there is no formal therapy component at Circle Camps, Welch said the campers do join in “circle time” — a chance to present photos of their parents who have died — on their first day. The girls also create a “bill of rights for grieving children,” which, at past sessions, has included such items as the right to “not be excluded just because you don’t have a parent,” and the right “to not be ignored.”

Arts and crafts projects also will have a grief component, Welch said, and will include the creation of memory boxes.

Other camp activities include those typical of a more conventional summer camp, such as basketball, soccer, tennis, dance, canoeing and swimming.

The JCC has made a five-year commitment to host Circle of EKC, Welch said, and she thinks it eventually will become Circle Camps’ largest program.

“We couldn’t ask for more cooperative, invested partners than the people at the JCC,” she said. “They are people who trust what we are doing and saying ‘Do what you do best.’ They have a heart.”

Circle of EKC will be partially funded by money raised by Rodef Shalom in honor of Fred Rogers, who will posthumously receive the congregation’s Pursuer of Peace 2014 award, according to Ann Roth, president of Rodef Shalom. Circle of EKC will split the funds with Quest Camps, a therapeutic camp for children with emotional challenges, operated in collaboration with Squirrel Hill Psychological Services.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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