Circle of Tapawingo celebrates 10 years

By Lisa Williams Ackley

Staff Writer

CAMPERS COME TO CAMP TAPAWINGO — in Sweden to share in the experience of Circle of Tapawingo, a program for young girls who are grieving the loss of a loved one, so they can have fun and to find out, as one little girl said, “I’m not the only girl in fourth grade who doesn’t have a Mom.”

SWEDEN — Ten years ago this week, right after the horror of 9/11, Sandi Lando Welch had an inspirational idea to help grieving young girls ages eight to 12 who have lost a parent or sibling — bring them to the spot she came to love as a camper herself in the 1950s and 1960s — Camp Tapawingo on the shores of Keyes Pond — to be at an overnight camp for one week with other kids who are living with the same sadness, so they can share their feelings with one another while having fun at the same time.

Sandi named the program “Circle of Tapawingo” and said at that time she hoped the experience of being with other children who have gone through the life-altering trauma of losing a loved one would, hopefully, be a cathartic one for all of them.

The headline on the front page of The Bridgton News in August, 2002, as the first Circle of Tapawingo took place, was: “Circle of Tapawingo Rescues Hearts.” A total of 32 girls from all over New England took part in the first Circle of Tapawingo.

Last month, 119 girls came together at Camp Tapawingo, offered graciously each year by owner Jane Lichtman, to experience, as Sandi says, “yet another special week where young girls learned that they are not alone in their grief, that it is okay to smile while holding fast to their memories.”

“The days at Circle are filled with swimming and tubing and canoeing, and softball and basketball and soccer, and arts and crafts and hip-hop and team building,” said Sandi. “We take a few minutes for morning cleanup (a very few minutes) and squeeze in a rest period. Evening activities include campfires and the annual Circle birthday party and Circle of the Stars Talent Show.”

Everyone gathers in the massive dining hall for meals, where even more fun erupts.

“Meals are among the best times of our week,” Sandi said. “It isn’t the food, but the order-followed-by-chaos that fills the dining room. We start out acting respectably. We sing grace, and serve and clear our tables in an orderly way. Then the singing begins and order breaks down as we all chant, ‘Hello, my name is Joe, I have a wife, a dog, and a family, I work in a button factory...’ The words are meaningless, and are accompanied by wild gyrations. Campers and counselors become one goofy group, as we sing and stomp our way through silly songs.”

TIME TOGETHER — share their sad feelings of having lost a parent or sibling, but they also share fun times, during their week away with other kids going through the same thing.

Why would adults who have full lives of their own want to do this every summer?

“This program is exceptional and unusual in that every counselor at Circle is a volunteer,” said Sandi. “We range in age from our early 20s to our late 60s. We all love children, and we all love camp. Why else would we sleep on army cots with plastic mattresses, brush our teeth with cold water, and shower only once every three days? Does it matter that the temperature often dips into the low 40s and we are sleeping in open bunks? No! We go to bed in our clothes and then wear them to breakfast the next morning. We are happy, and just a little smug at being so cheerful about our discomfort. I’m in Heaven! Our happiness surrounds our campers and invades the inner places where many of them have locked away their smiles. As one camper wrote on the rock she placed in the Circle Memory Garden:

Dear Daddy, I came here to cry for you but ended up laughing instead.’”

“We couldn’t have asked for a better endorsement of our program,” stated Sandi. “Circle of Tapawingo has changed the lives of countless grieving young girls. We are very, very proud of what we’ve created.”

“The Counselor in Training program is a huge part of our program,” said Sandi, “and next year we expect a 96% return rate of this year’s 64 counselors.”

“Our lifeguards from Bridgton — Wendy Bretton and her daughter, Sara — have been an integral part of our Circle family,” Sandi said. “They are just as important members of our family as any counselor.” Another lifeguard at Circle of Tapawingo is Francis J. LaRosa III, said Sandi.

New goal will help more grieving children

Sandi said her new goal is to encourage other summer camps — their owners, current and former campers and staff — to also offer a one-week program like Circle of Tapawingo for grieving boys and girls throughout the United States.

“I realized my first dream,” Sandi said on Monday, “and I have a whole team ready to move with me to start ‘Circle’ at other camps. We could never grow larger than 120 campers at Camp Tapawingo. The program is so well scripted, and I’m the best cheerleader. If someone is interested, we’ll help them in whatever way we can, because this is too good to keep at one camp.”

Other summer camp owners wanting to also help grieving kids through the sharing of their emotions and laughter with other kids just like them must have unique qualities that make them special, however, said Sandi.

“It has to be someone like Jane who has a heart of gold — and the goodness she’s done by allowing us to come here every summer for one week,” Sandi said. “Without our particular angel, we never would have had the opportunity to help so many kids.”

Why is Sandi willing to take more of her time away from her family and other endeavors she may want to try in order to expand the Circle program to other camps?

“You have to want to pay it forward,” said Sandi. “When you have good fortune in the world, you want to pay it back. There are so many children who need what we do.”

Those wanting more information about Circle of Tapawingo may contact Sandi Lando Welch at: 5124 Holyrood Road, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15213, or contact her at (412) 491-8151 or e-mail her at swelch@circleoftapawingo.org

Camper referrals should be forwarded to: Cathy Spear, Director of Camper Services, 2251 Commonwealth Avenue, Auburndale, Mass., 02466, or phone her at (781) 820-3388. Cathy’s e-mail is: cspear@circleoftapawingo.org

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