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The boys from Coots cabin

When you're 9 years old and you've lost someone you love, it's good to be with kids who know how you feel.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published April 15, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Ryan Walsh was running through the dark.

He had been playing a game called human foosball at a weekend camp for kids coping with the death of someone close, and another boy kicked the ball when Ryan wanted to kick it, so then Ryan kicked that boy and hit him and put his hands around his neck. Then Ryan kneed one of his cabin leaders in the groin and ran off shouting bad words. Cabin leader Ed Finch walked after him and then ran.

"Noooooooooo!" Ryan shouted.

"Ryan!" Ed said. "Stop running."

"Noooooooooo!"

Under some trees, over a hill, Ed caught up to him and held him until the cabin's counselor got there. Crystal MacRitchie held Ryan, hard but soft.

"Take a deep breath," Crystal said.

Ryan thrashed.

"Take a deep breath," she said again.

He started to slow.

"Take another deep breath, sweetie."

He was still. Now he started to cry. His face was tight to her chest, and he said in a small, muffled voice that he was there because of his mom.

"I miss her," Ryan said.

"What was your mom's name?" Crystal asked.

"Shelly," Ryan said.

* * *

Almost 90 kids gathered one weekend last month at Lakewood Retreat, down a long lime rock road and past some wildflowers and some old citrus trees just north of the Hernando-Pasco county line. The annual camp on a lake started in 1993 and is put on by the Children's Assistance Program of Hernando-Pasco Hospice and its seven full-time counselors, with help from the United Way of Pasco, the Rotary Club of Brooksville, Spring Hill Kiwanis and more than 50 volunteers. It's open and free for kids ages 9 to 15 from Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

They all arrive with one thing in common: They've lost someone they love. That's particularly hard for kids the age of Ryan and the others in his cabin: the 9- and 10-year-olds.

Any younger, they don't quite understand it; any older, they can kind of begin to handle it. But these kids? The grief hits like wind in a place with no trees.

"This age group," Crystal said, "they're beginning to understand that death is final."

The healing here, she said, is intense.

Everyone does that in different ways and at different speeds. Some kids get clingy and some get irritable and some start to sleep more than they used to or act up in school. Some are sad. Some are angry. Most are both.

The kids in the cabin called the Coots gathered Friday night and sat in a circle on the dusty wood floor. Crystal sat with them. So did Ed Finch, a third-grade teacher in Brooksville, and fellow cabin leaders Mike "Peedy" Howell, who lives in Valrico and sells pharmaceuticals, and Michael Layne, who lives in Brandon and sells electronics. Everybody took turns saying why they were there.

Spenser Burton from Zephyrhills lost his brother.

Blake Sylvester from Wesley Chapel lost his grandmother.

Dakota Padgett from Zephyrhills lost his granddad and his aunt.

T.J. Vandemheen lost his grandmother, Jacob Tyszko and River Fitzpatrick lost their brothers, Christian Frith lost his father, and Billy Clark and Yomar Molina lost their mothers.

Like Ryan.

He is in the third grade and lives in Lecanto in Citrus County. His dad has a job installing sprinklers in Ocala. Ryan is the kind of kid who sometimes stays quiet and watches others when they aren't watching him. Earlier in the evening, before this cabin sit-down, and before the foosball game, he unpacked his stuff and showed some people his "adult-size" sleeping bag, and said he was only 9 years old, and then told them his pillow and pillowcase had belonged to his mother.

On the walk to the building where they ate dinner, some of the boys had started some pushing and shoving, and Ryan got knocked down to the dirt road. He got up and checked his elbow for blood. Then Ryan rushed up to one of the boys, raised his fist and said: "I'm going to kill you!" Then he walked off and looked down at the ground and was alone for a bit.

A nurse came during dinner to put some salve on the cut on his elbow.

The nurse told him it might hurt just a little. "But it'll go away quick," she said.

The salve went on. Ryan shook his head.

No, he said. It doesn't hurt.

Now, in the cabin, much later in the evening, Ryan told the other boys about his mother and the nine years of her multiple sclerosis, his whole life, and he wept.

"I want others to be hurting instead of me!" he wailed.

And here they were in the cabin, just like him, also his age, also hurting, and he saw that, and he was told it wasn't his fault. This, Crystal said later, outside the cabin, was an important night for all the boys, and for Ryan, who had been getting counseling and would continue to get counseling when the weekend was over. But Ryan can't hit people at the camp, she said, and he can't run off, and if it happened again Ryan was going to have to go home.

* * *

Saturday morning. The plan was to play games with names like the balance beam, the blind boardwalk, the wall, the web and the human knot. They were meant to teach teamwork, trust and initiative.

Ryan didn't want to do them. Every time.

And then he did them. Every time.

"Can anybody tell me how that was like grieving?" Crystal asked the boys after one of the early exercises.

"It helps you lift up the cinder block that's on yourself," Ryan said.

He used both hands and made like he was pushing something out from the center of his chest.

The boys got to the wall. It was made of wood and 10 feet high straight up. They had to help each other get over that wall.

Dakota got up and over. Then Jacob.

Now Ryan.

Yomar and River and Billy and T.J. pushed from below. Dakota and Jacob pulled from above.

"Come on, Ryan!" cabin leader Michael yelled. "Get up over that wall!"

He was up.

He was over.

When he got back down on the grass he smiled and went up and hugged Michael from the back and looked up at him.

"Hi," he said.

At the blind boardwalk, a wooden bridge built over a creek, Ryan teamed up with Blake. Blake had to put on a blindfold. Ryan put his hands on the back of Blake's shoulders and led him across the bridge with the steps up and down.

"Come on, buddy," Ryan said to Blake.

"Almost there," he told him.

Then they switched. Ryan was the one blindfolded. Blake guided Ryan over the bridge and back.

"Steps," Blake said to Ryan.

"Steps."

The exercise ended. The boys had some extra time before the next exercise and went to play on some monkey bars. Jacob tried to get on the first rung, but Ryan wanted to go first, so he pushed Jacob in the chest and then kicked him in the leg.

And that was it.

* * *

The boys ate lunch. After that they went outside, and Blake looked around. "Ryan's still not here?" he asked out loud. He walked past the four-square court and looked down the road and up the hill and walked around cabin leader Ed. "Where's Ryan?" he said.

* * *

On Saturday night, after the physical exercises and swimming in the pool in the afternoon heat, all the boys and girls in all eight cabins went inside a building with the blinds down and were quiet. Light came only from the small candles on the tables.

There was soft music.

Shhhhh, people said.

The boys sat down. They did what they were told: They were given white pencils and black construction paper and they drew what they were feeling. Then they wrote letters or poems to their brothers, mothers, fathers, aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers.

Jacob started to cry.

Dakota put his hand on Jacob's back.

Jacob rubbed his face on his sleeve and wiped his nose.

T.J. started to cry.

Dakota sat still.

Spenser sat still.

"Is my paper in your way?" Jacob whispered to T.J.

Jacob looked at his paper and traced his words with his hand and read his words with his lips moving to make sure they were right. Then he stopped and rubbed his eyes with his hands. Then he used the top of his T-shirt. Then he picked up the pencil and kept going.

When they were finished, they all took their notes and walked down to the lake. Nobody made noise.

They gathered and made a big circle. One of the counselors told the kids they were going to put their notes in a nest, and then the nest was going to be put in a boat, and then in the lake, and then set on fire. What they had written, he told them, would go up above.

The notes went into the nest.

The nest went into the boat.

The oars knocked against the side of the boat, and that sound got more and more faint.

Then the nest was put into the lake and the notes in the nest were lit. On the shore, Dakota cried and Jacob put his hand on his shoulder, and the 9- and 10-year-old boys kept quiet and stayed still and looked out at the lake and watched the light in the middle of all that dark.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.

Fast facts

About the story

Hernando-Pasco Hospice invited St. Petersburg Times journalists Michael Kruse and Edmund Fountain to spend a weekend in March at the Children's Assistance Program camp in Hernando County. All the parents or guardians signed media releases before the camp. On Sunday, when the kids were picked up, the Times talked with parents and guardians of the boys in the Coots cabin to make sure it was okay to include their children in this story. Ryan's father also gave his consent.On the WebHear the boys share their stories at links.tampabay.com.