Elliot Kim was about halfway through a hot and dusty hike in Julian when he decided he was done walking.
The 8-year-old climbed onto the back of Ty Barrion, his parents' friend. Elliot was tired — this was his first time at sleepaway camp and he hadn't slept well the night before.
When the hike ended, Elliot and Barrion sat down to rest and started playing a game with Elliot’s name tag.
"Ready? Concentrating? One, two, three," Barrion said, and dropped the tag, letting Elliot try to catch it.
On it was a picture of Elliot's father, Coast Guard Cmdr. Scott Kim, who drowned two years ago.
Kim was one of more than 12,000 American military personnel who have died since the Iraq War ended in 2003. A nonprofit called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, works with the families left behind.
Each summer TAPS holds a series of Good Grief Campouts across the country, including one in Julian last month that Elliot attended. About 40 kids were at the three-day camp.
Each camper was paired with a mentor who is in the military. Barrion, a Marine captain, was Elliot's mentor, and also knew his parents.
"I don’t want to fill the void of Scott. That’s not my job. I could never do what Scott had done for his family, but at least I can help create those memories for Elliot when he grows up," Barrion said.
Creating good memories is one of the goals of Good Grief Campouts. They’re part learning coping skills — and part just having fun.
"To ensure kids understand that what happened in their life with regard to their parent is an event in their life, but not a defining moment in their life," Barrion said. "It’s something that they can be aware of, but they don’t have to dwell on it, it doesn’t have to be the only thing people address them about."
How does Elliot feel having Barrion as his mentor?
"Happy," the boy whispered.
"We’re all really close friends and we all love each other," Elliot said. "That’s why he gives me piggyback rides."
Elliot said being at the camp "makes me feel like I’m part of the community."
"Because not many people in my school have lost their dads and moms," he said.
While it's Elliot's first time at camp, some campers have been going for years. Athena Gonzales, 12, has been to several after her father died while fighting in Afghanistan five years ago.
Each morning starts with circle time, which gives campers different ways of expressing themselves. They do crafts to remember their parents, or have group discussions. Some questions are easier, such as what was her father’s favorite color. Others are harder.
"The hardest question, I feel like it’s still the hardest question to this day, is how I learned he died," Athena said. "That’s hard for me to say, but in the end it feels good to be able to tell other people."
She said that time connects kids who understand each other.
"I feel like it helps them remember the life and the love they had with that person, and celebrate it rather than being more depressed over it," she said.
After circle time, Athena hit the climbing wall. She was a bit nervous, but tackled it with coaching from her mentor.
Watching her climb from a nearby picnic table was Ashlynne Haycock, who was a camper for eight years and now works for TAPS.
Her father died in Army training in 2002. In 2011, her mother, who had served in the Air Force, committed suicide.
The 25-year-old Haycock said the camp saved her, because when she was growing up she didn’t know anyone who had lost a parent.
"Everything that TAPs did really normalized what I was going through," she said. "It made me feel like it was OK that I missed my father still, that even five, six years out that I still cried and still dreaded the anniversary of his death and his birthdays were still hard. To know that other kids were going through that, too, made it so much easier."
Those camp friends then supported her during the year. Haycock said she loves seeing new campers start having fun.
"It’s OK for them to not want to cry. It’s OK for them to have fun, and to enjoy their time together," she said. "It doesn’t have to be all tears and circle time and depressing, which is what so many people think grief camp is."
After lunch, the campers all convened in the pool. There, Elliot and Barrion invented another game, using pool noodles like baseball bats to hit tennis balls. As they splashed and laughed, other kids joined them to play, too.