At This Camp, Children Of Opioid Addicts Learn To Cope And Laugh

Oct 9, 2019
Originally published on October 11, 2019 10:19 am

Editor's note: To protect the anonymity of the children in this story, we are not using their names.

Children are often called the hidden casualties of the opioid epidemic. They carry a lot of secrets and shame.

The majority of children at Camp Mariposa in Dayton, Ohio, have parents who are addicted to opioids. The nonprofit group Eluna runs camps in 13 states, many of them in areas hardest hit by the opioid crisis. All of these children have experienced trauma, sometimes abuse and neglect, and a growing number are in foster care. These children often struggle to reconcile the loving parents they remember with who they have become.

One of them is 8-year-old C.

"When my sister and my brother were kids, my mother would actually beat them," C says. "Like child abused them. My brother and sister were just screaming and crying. 'Cause actually my mom holded my sisters and choked her, up to where her feet were off the ground. It made me feel mad at my mom. I still don't forgive her, but I still love her."

C's mother lives in a different state and has lost custody of all four of her children. C lives with their grandmother.

These children often think they're alone in their experiences, and Camp Mariposa allows them to connect with other children. Their lives are filled with uncertainty, but camp director Wendy Berkshire wants these preteens to know they do have power.

"To know they can't control what's going on in their life or their family, but they have all the power to control themselves and their emotions," Berkshire says.

Protective influences

"Gently put the glitter in. There's blue, purple, pink and white glitter," Berkshire says as she teaches the kids to make mindfulness jars. They mix a few drops of food coloring to their glass jars that are filled with a mixture of water and glue. Then they add glitter.

The jar has a pretty simple idea behind it: When you shake it, your thoughts and feelings are like the glitter — agitated and all over the place. Stop shaking and the glitter settles down. You can, too. A, 12, stares at their jar.

Children at Camp Mariposa are encouraged to share what's going on in their homes and talk about their feelings. Later in this activity they learn how to move from the "red zone," where they may be upset or sad, to the "green zone," where they feel happy and calm. Some say they listen to music, draw or take a warm bath.
Kavitha Cardoza for NPR

"You can watch it go calm and it helps me breathe," A says.

At Camp Mariposa, children are encouraged to share their feelings. B, 12, talks about coming home from a play date and being taken away to foster care. Since then B has been in several foster homes.

"When it happened again, I had a mental breakdown," B says. "And I got anxiety and got depression."

S wants to forget seeing their mother do drugs while pregnant.

"It made me upset because she almost made my brother die," S says.

A shares that their mom has relapsed.

"She says it's like a grip it has upon you," A says. "She explained it to me and my brother, like if you really want to have a cupcake every single day and constantly. And if you didn't have it, you'd feel really sick."

Children at Camp Mariposa are encouraged to take "healthy risks," such as ziplining, rock climbing and horseback riding. They learn to overcome their fears with their camp mentors close by. One child says, "The last time I got on, I was freaking out and crying and got off the horse. But now I'm taking deep breaths and I think I can do it!" They enjoyed their first ride on Winchester.
Courtesy of Jared Case

Camp mentor Derek Fink hears painful stories all the time.

"These kids have experienced needles in their living room and having to call 911 to revive their parents," Fink says. "Kids living in garages, peeing in buckets in the corner. Kids sticking up for their parents because they want them to do right. Kids watch their dads [overdose] and die, to raise their own brothers and sisters because there's no parent in their life."

Having caring adults such as Fink around is a way to boost protective influences in their lives. The children are paired with mentors they meet every month, either at camp or during weekend activities for at least a year. B says at camp they know they belong.

"Like, this is my home and ... my other home at home is like a backup," B says.

Children learn how to calm themselves down when they're upset. They take healthy risks through activities such as horseback riding, and they sing the camp song: "I didn't cause it, I can't control it, I can't cure it."

B loves the song.

"It helps me realize that I didn't cause what happened to me and I used to think that all the time," B says. "I used to be like, 'I shouldn't be here, I caused this.' Now I realize that it wasn't me and it makes me feel much better."

Stolen childhood

These children have a higher risk of using drugs and entering the juvenile justice system. Brian Maus, the director of addiction prevention and mentoring programs at Eluna, says a three-year study with a team of researchers at Louisiana State University found both their main goals were being met: 95% of campers had never used a substance to get high, and 98% had no involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Berkshire, the camp director, and other mentors spend one-on-one time with campers. One child said they feel like this is their "real" home and the other home they live in full time is a "backup."
Kavitha Cardoza for NPR

"Ultimately the goal is to break the cycle of addiction," Maus says.

The camps are funded through government money and private donations, and the need is so great they are opening camps in five additional locations next year, including in Alaska and Texas. A second camp will open in Dayton.

Maus, who is a former therapist, says one of the best things about this camp is that kids can be giggly and goofy here. They pour too much syrup on their pancakes, yell about spotting a spider and are looking forward to a big camp party tonight, complete with a DJ and s'mores.

"I think the education is great. I think the connections are awesome," Maus says. "But to let kids be kids? That's it for me. The opioid epidemic really has stolen their childhood away."

Letters to addiction

But before that, they need to tackle some difficult stuff.

The children have written "Letters to Addiction," and they're getting ready to read them out loud. The lights are dim and the children are uncharacteristically somber. C begins.

Dear Addiction,

Why do adults like you? When I am older I will be against you. You make me not like my mom and dad and its sad. You made my dad go to prison. I hate you.

D is next.

Dear Addiction,

You are my worst enemy. You took my dad from me, my stepdad, my aunt and about to be my uncle. So I just have to ask you a question: Can you please just go to hell?

Signed, a very sad kid.

The lyrics of the Camp Mariposa song, "7 Cs," are printed out on lanyards so new campers can sing along. "It helps me realize that I didn't cause what happened to me," one child said. "It makes me feel much better."
Kavitha Cardoza for NPR

Another camper struggles to read their letter before breaking down.

I hate you so f*****g bad. I wish you wasn't real. You hurt kids so bad.

Soon, everyone is crying. But it's cathartic, and later on the children say this was the best part of camp.

Berkshire, the camp director, and all the mentors hug and high-five them as each child throws their letter into a fire pit. A lot of people say "I love you" and "You are so brave" and "I'm proud of you" as the children run off to play.

D, 10, is the last one. He throws his letter in and looks up, his big blue eyes filled with tears and says softly, "I miss my mom."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Children have been called the hidden casualties of the opioid crisis. They experience abuse and neglect, many take on parental roles, and a growing number are in foster care. But a national mentoring program is trying to help. Kavitha Cardoza visited one such program in Dayton, Ohio. We should note this story includes harrowing details about addiction, abuse and neglect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) And I didn't cause it.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: It's 8-year-old C's first time at Camp Mariposa. She's nervous. She's still learning the camp song, "I Didn't Cause It. I Can't Control It. I Can't Cure It." C sits in a circle with other campers, all between 8 and 12. C is her first initial. We're not naming her or the other children in this story to protect their privacy. Her curly hair bobbing, C looks around. She desperately wants a new best friend.

C: I had this one best friend. And I told her all my secrets. So one day, she just snapped on me and would - telling someone. And then that someone came to me told me that I'm going to end up just like my parents.

CARDOZA: C's parents have been using drugs since she was born. When she was 5, her grandmother got a phone call saying terrible things were going on in the family. So she picked up C, who's lived with her ever since. C has no contact with her mother. Her father is locked up.

Wendy Berkshire, the camp director, says for children like C, secrets and shame are a huge burden.

WENDY BERKSHIRE: Don't talk. Don't share. Don't feel. And we teach the kids here at camp when we keep our feelings inside and we don't have an opportunity to share them in a safe place and with a safe person, it becomes a part of the cycle of addiction.

CARDOZA: Here, those secrets come spilling out. One camper talks about coming home after a playdate and being taken away to foster care.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I just didn't want it to happen again because it's happened too many times. So when it happened again, I had a mental breakdown. And I got anxiety and got depression.

CARDOZA: Another wants to forget what she's seen.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: My mom did drugs when she was pregnant with my brother. And it made me upset because she almost made my brother die.

CARDOZA: One boy shares his mom has relapsed.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: She says it's like a grip it has upon you. She explained it to me and my brother, like if you really wanted to have a cupcake every single day and constantly. And if you didn't have it, you'd feel really sick.

CARDOZA: The nonprofit Eluna runs these camps in 13 states, many in areas hardest hit by the opioid crisis. All these children have experienced trauma. And like C, many are conflicted about their parents' behavior. Her mother lives in a different state and has lost custody of all four of her children.

C: When my sister and my brother were kids, my mom would actually beat them, like child abuse them. My brother and sister were just screaming and crying because actually, my mom hold my sister's throat and choked her up to where her feet were off the ground.

CARDOZA: How did that make you feel?

C: It made me feel, like, mad at my mom. And I still don't forgive her, but I still love her.

DEREK FINK: These kids have experienced needles in their living room and having to call 911 to revive their parents.

CARDOZA: As a camp mentor here, Derek Fink hears painful stories.

FINK: Kids living in garages, peeing in buckets in the corner, kids sticking up for their parents because they want them to do right, kids watching their dads OD and die, to raise their own brothers and sisters because there is no parent in their life.

CARDOZA: Sharing feelings and caring adults, that's how this camp tries to boost protective influences in these kids' lives because they're at higher risk for using drugs themselves and for entering the juvenile justice system.

BERKSHIRE: We can't fix their lives, but we can walk alongside that.

CARDOZA: Walking alongside means these camps are not a one-off event. These 25 campers get together every month, and mentors also meet them on weekends. In many ways, these adults are the stable, consistent figures in their lives. One little girl says at camp, she knows she belongs.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Like, this is my home. And my other home at home is like a backup.

CARDOZA: There's also a four-month program for family members still in the children's lives and lots of free activities funded through government and private money. Songs and stress balls, deep breathing and drawing - they're taught calming techniques and coping skills to make better choices. Wendy Berkshire wants them to realize they do have power.

BERKSHIRE: To know that they have the ability. They can't control what's going on in their life or their family, but they have all the power to control themselves and their emotions.

CARDOZA: Mindfulness jars are a huge hit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Purple and yellow.

BERKSHIRE: It's purple and yellow. I love that.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Miss Wendy, look.

CARDOZA: Children mix a few drops of food coloring to their jars, which are filled with a mixture of water and glue. Then they add glitter.

BERKSHIRE: Gently put the glitter in. We have blue, purple, pink and white.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Miss Wendy...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Put half a spoon. Yeah, half a spoon.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I want white and blue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK.

CARDOZA: The jar has a pretty simple idea behind it. When you shake it, your thoughts and feelings are like the glitter - agitated and all over the place.

BERKSHIRE: When you get the glitter in, you want to shake it...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Like this?

CARDOZA: Stop shaking, the glitter settles down, and so can you. The kids stare at their jars.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: And then you can watch it go calm, and it helps me breathe.

CARDOZA: These kids can be giggly and goofy here. They pour too much syrup on their pancakes, yell about spotting a spider and are looking forward to the big camp party tonight, complete with a DJ and s'mores. But before that, they need to tackle some tough stuff. The children have written letters to addiction. And they're getting ready to read them out loud.

BERKSHIRE: This is a circle of safety. We're just sharing. And we're listening.

CARDOZA: The lights are dim. Even C is uncharacteristically somber. She sits close to her three new best friends as she reads.

C: Dear addiction, why do adults like you? When I'm older, I will be a kid still. You make me not like my mom and dad. And it's sad. You make my dad go to prison. I hate you.

CARDOZA: After a moment, another child speaks up.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: Dear addiction, you are my worst enemy. You took my dad from me, my stepdad, my aunt and about to be my uncle. So I just have to ask you a question, could you please just go to hell? Signed, a very sad kid.

CARDOZA: One little girl struggles to get through hers.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: I hate you so (expletive) bad. And I wish you wasn't real. You hurt kids so bad. I hate you. Go to hell. This is a part to my mom. I miss you, Mommy.

CARDOZA: Everyone cries.

BERKSHIRE: You don't have to keep it inside anymore. And the most important thing to Miss Wendy is that you know that you're not alone. Absolutely most important thing to me is that you're seen, and you're known, and you're heard.

CARDOZA: The children line up near a fire pit to throw their letters in.

BERKSHIRE: Throw it in. Nice. Your turn. I'm so proud of you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: Love you.

BERKSHIRE: I love you, too, sweetheart. You're the last one, David. That was really hard stuff, wasn't it?

DAVID: I miss my mom.

BERKSHIRE: You miss your mom? I know you do, sweetheart. And I'm sorry that Mommy's not here. I'm sorry.

CARDOZA: For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Dayton, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.