Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), awarded the 2014 Roger E. Joseph Prize to COPE-Camp Erin® NYC at HUC-JIR/New York Ordination at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on Sunday, May 11, 2014. The Prize was accepted by Lilly Julien, President and Founder of The COPE Foundation. The text of Lilly Julien's speech is below.
I am honored to be here with the family of Roger E. Joseph, accepting The Prize for COPE-Camp Erin® NYC, in memory of their beloved father, grandfather, and uncle.
I am proud to be standing before you, Cantors and Rabbis of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in this magnificent synagogue.
My story is one of Love and Loss...Dreams and Possibilities.
On Jan 25, 1992, I received the phone call every parent dreads. My daughter, Michelle, who was attending the University of Arizona, had been killed in a car accident.
Twenty-two years ago, I embarked on a journey we will all make at some time in our lives when we lose a loved one.
Twenty-two years ago, I did not know how I'd survive, how I would go on living. I could never have imagined that twenty-two years later I’d be standing here on Mother's Day, accepting this award on behalf of the legacy that my loss helped to create.
The story of COPE-Camp Erin® NYC is full of connections and synchronicities.
Soon after the accident, my daughter came to me in a dream. She told me—“I’m okay, Mommy. You’re the ones who aren't okay. And you need to reach out and help each other.” I woke with the vision of a healing place where parents and siblings could come to find comfort and support.
At the time, I was the least likely person to realize such a lofty, ambitious dream. But I felt guided by my daughter. What I couldn't do for myself, I could do for her, and together we would do this. Her message became my mission. I began planting seeds in my synagogue; People started to come into my life who were inspired by my vision and it soon took on a life of it’s own.
At the time, I knew no other parent who had lost a child. That quickly changed and soon a group of us began meeting in each other's homes for solace and support. In 1999, my vision became COPE, an acronym for “Connecting Our Paths Eternally.” Over the years COPE has grown to supporting nearly 700 hundred families living with the loss of a child. COPE is a resource within the community to raise awareness and educate schools and clergy to better serve the bereaved.
In 2011, in partnership with the Moyer Foundation, COPE expanded its mission and established Camp Erin NYC to support grieving children in the New York tri-state area—so no child should have to grieve alone.
When I saw the list of illustrious past recipients of the Roger E. Joseph Prize, I was humbled. How can our children’s bereavement camp be recognized along with people who saved thousands from the Holocaust? Then someone pointed out to me that when a person loses their loved one—a child, a spouse, a sibling—it’s a personal “holocaust.” And I understood. To comfort those who mourn is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, an expression of the injunction to heal the world.
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, loss and bereavement were publicly acknowledged. If you were mourning the loss of a loved one, you entered the Temple through a separate Gate and walked along a special Mourner’s Path where you saw you were not alone, You came face to face with others walking in the opposite direction who, having been mourners themselves, demonstrated the possibility of life after loss.
COPE and Camp Erin NYC are places where those who are mourning, find their loss acknowledged and take comfort from those who have already walked this path and survived.
Fundamental to all our support programs is the healing power of being witnessed as well as witnessing another’s grief. Those on the Mourner’s Path—parents or children—understand one another in a way no one else can, and to each other they can bare their deepest wounds. Walking the path together provides a sacred space where their loss and grief are honored. And healing can take place.
Eight years after my daughter’s death, on the same date, Jan 25th, I received another dreaded phone call. I would have thought one of those calls was enough for a lifetime. My husband had a fatal heart attack on our daughter’s Yarzheit. And now my other children lost their father as well as their sister.
Children’s grief remains one of society's most overlooked issues. Grieving children are often referred to as the “forgotten mourners.” There’s no clear path for children who have lost a sibling, parent, or someone close to them. Many bereaved children are often at risk. They not only feel isolated in their grief, but their loss is often compounded by their parents’ preoccupation with their own terrible loss.
At Camp Erin NYC, bereaved children ages 6-17 experience a free weekend, where they are given the tools and skills to express their emotions and share their grief in a place that's safe. Held at the end of August, and situated at my family's beautiful Camp Wayne, the energy and enthusiasm of our camp director, clinical director and staff have made the Camp Erin NYC experience a transformative and healing weekend.
Traditional fun camp activities are combined with grief activities and facilitated by professionals and volunteers. All our volunteers undergo a training led by our Camp Clinical Director. They’re trained to listen and to not interject their own experiences of loss. They’re task is simply to be a supportive presence for the children.
It has been a great privilege to witness how grieving children who have experienced horrific loss find healing. The first evening at camp, the children post pictures of their loved ones on a memory board. They speak their names and tell their stories. In this powerful and emotional experience they find that they are not alone and they bond with others who have survived similar losses. At Camp Erin NYC their pain and grief is honored and they find the support I wish Michelle’s siblings had had.
On Saturday the children decorate luminaries with messages to their loved ones. In the evening, they come down to the lake where they light their candles and set them out onto the water. For some children this is the only opportunity they've had to say goodbye. As I was blessed to witness my son and daughter, now adults, comforting weeping children, I felt the mission Michelle had entrusted to me was now fulfilled.
The Camp Erin initiative began with the The Moyer Foundation after Karen and Jamie Moyer met a child named Erin through Make a Wish. Erin was 15 and dying of cancer. She was only concerned for her siblings and how they would cope after her death. Her story inspired me to establish Camp Erin NYC, one of 41 bereavement camps across the country named for Erin.
I'm deeply honored to be accepting the Roger E. Joseph Prize for COPE-Camp Erin® NYC. It is especially meaningful to me that this Prize is the legacy for a father, and a sibling, created out of great love and profound loss. I feel a special kinship with the Joseph family; And I thank them and Hebrew Union College from the bottom of my heart for this recognition and the opportunity to serve a greater number of grieving children.
I leave you with a poem that our Camp Director read to the children on their last day of camp.
Everyone wants to be the sun that lights up your life.
But we’d rather be your moon
so we can shine on you during your darkest hour
when your sun isn’t around.