Children swing from the trees at Camp Mariposa. They hike near the river bank, huddle around a bonfire, and stage talent shows on Saturday night. Here, carefree rituals parallel a more serious quest: these campers are learning how to break the cycle of addiction in their families – and to cope with the chaos back home.
Now in its 10th year, Camp Mariposa is a haven for children ages 9-12 who are impacted by a family member’s drug or alcohol abuse.
Many participants at the free weekend camps have been shuttled through foster care or live with relatives due to a parent’s addiction. Some have endured homelessness, abuse and chronic neglect – or bear the stress of having parents in prison.
At Camp Mariposa, these children learn that they are not responsible for a loved one’s addiction. They’re taught how to forge a different path than what they have known, and they meet others who share their pain.
“Being with kids that had the same experience as me was the best. It let me open up about things and know that they understood. I didn’t feel ‘different,’” says Parker, whose aunt enrolled her in Camp Mariposa. Parker was 11 when she and her sister began attending the overnight weekend camps; today at 14, she’s back as a junior counselor. “I like that now I get to be a role model and good example for the younger kids,” she says.
Camp Mariposa was created in 2007 by the Moyer Foundation, a non-profit led by retired Major League Baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen. Helping children and families suffering from grief or addiction is the focus of the couple’s philanthropic work. Their other signature program is Camp Erin, the largest network of bereavement camps for children in North America.
In 2016, nearly 1,200 campers impacted by family addiction attended Camp Mariposa. Most take part in multiple camp weekends, held every other month.
“It is crucial that kids come to as many sessions as possible to reap the benefits of what can help them the rest of their lives,” says Karen Phelps Moyer, co-founder and vice president of the foundation and the daughter of former Notre Dame Basketball Coach and ESPN analyst Digger Phelps.
“I have seen firsthand siblings and cousins come to camp and be empowered to know that they can be different,” she says. “I have witnessed families come back together while broken, and learn to live on and live well.”
Karen Phelps Moyer, right, bonds with campers during art therapy at Camp Mariposa.
Support from charitable donations and a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice has expanded Camp Mariposa to 10 states. That includes areas with America’s highest rate of drug overdose deaths – West Virginia, New Hampshire and Kentucky.
Inspiration for the camp came when Phelps Moyer, the mother of eight children, stepped up for a relative in need.
“I had temporary custody of my niece whose mother was battling addiction,” she says. “I knew first hand there were no services for this age group.” After doing some research, Phelps Moyer connected with addiction pioneer Claudia Black, Ph.D., whose body of work since the 1970s has examined the impact of addiction on young and adult children.
Black, a founder and current advisory board member of the National Association of Children of Alcoholics, helped design the therapeutic model for Camp Mariposa. The camp partners with local, accredited mental health and youth organizations to give children safe adventures, and the skills and confidence they need to prevent an addiction of their own.
4x More Likely to Get Addicted
An estimated one in five children in the United States lives with an adult who abuses drugs or alcohol, according to a 2016 clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Families Affected by Parental Substance Use.” And that can trigger a heap of tragic consequences.
“The research clearly demonstrates that children impacted by addiction in the family are at a much higher risk for their own substance abuse, depression, anxiety, primary health care problems, low academic performance, school absenteeism,” says Black, the clinical architect of Camp Mariposa. “They are more likely to enter foster care and remain in foster care for longer periods of time. And the list goes on.”
An estimated 50 to 80 percent of all substantiated child abuse and neglect cases involve some degree of substance abuse by the child’s parents, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
And young people living with an addicted family member are four times more likely to develop their own addiction, according to the Moyer Foundation.
But “protective factors” – such as healthy social connections, the support and guidance of a grandparent, or therapeutic intervention – can buffer addiction risk for the next generation.
“The research also tells us that that risk can be lessened with protective factors, and those protective factors are more influential than the risk factors,” Black says. “And that is what Camp Mariposa offers – the development of protective factors.”
“Through experiential play activity, it provides (campers) with new coping skills in problem solving, asking for help and regulating their emotions. It is shame-reducing, helping them to challenge negative beliefs about themselves and begin to trust in their own worth and value.”
High-risk children gain a sense of belonging at camp, while having fun, Black adds. “The entire experience supports them in their resiliency.”
Don’t Trust, Don’t Talk, Don’t Feel:
Rewriting the Family Rules
Camp Mariposa challenges the unspoken, dysfunctional rules in addicted families – identified by Black as “Don’t Trust, Don’t Talk, Don’t Feel.”
“At Camp Mariposa, children first learn it is okay to trust the other children and adult mentors at camp,” says Brian Maus, who oversees the national camp network as Director of Addiction Prevention and Mentoring Programs for the Moyer Foundation. “We then provide the tools and activities for children to be able to identify their feelings. Finally, we create a safe environment where children are able to talk about and express those feelings – often for the first time.”
Finding connection at Camp Mariposa
To reduce feelings of isolation and get the most benefit, children are asked to make a one-year commitment to attend most camp weekends. The peers who join them – and often, their mentors and counselors – can relate to growing up in an addicted home.
“The children who attend Camp Mariposa often talk about the friendships they have made at Camp Mariposa and how the other kids and adults are like a second family to them,” Maus says. “There is tremendous healing that occurs in these relationships that are built over the period of several years.”
Positive risk-taking activities such as ropes courses help campers build confidence and trust. “It is an amazing experience to see a child who is afraid of heights walk on a rope suspended in the air between two large trees,” Maus says. “They are literally connected by a rope to the other campers and adults whom they have come to trust.”
Campers also learn that their feelings matter. They’re free to express anger or sorrow about a family member’s addiction through journaling and other initiatives such as art therapy and drumming. They learn deep breathing techniques and other mindfulness practices to cope with stressful feelings at home.
All campers are invited to write letters to “ADDICTION” and read them aloud on Saturday night, before they toss the letters onto a campfire. “For many of the youth who attend Camp Mariposa, this is a highlight of each weekend that offers them the opportunity to release their feelings in a safe and supportive environment,” Maus says (one camper wrote, “Drugs hurt you. They ruin your life and they sometimes can kill you. Well, drugs hurt my Mom and I think that’s unfair.”)
Signs of Suicide:
Helping Campers at Risk
Children living with an addicted family member have an elevated risk of mental health problems. An estimated 25 percent of Camp Mariposa youth screen positive for depression and suicidal thoughts.
Two years ago, the camp added to its curriculum an evidence-based program, “Signs of Suicide” to confront the issue. Any camper who scores positive for depression and suicide risk undergoes a more formal assessment with Camp Mariposa clinical staff. If concerns remain, a parent or guardian is notified and the camper is connected to a local therapist. Children also participate in guided mental health discussions and learn to recognize danger signs in themselves and others through the acronym ACT:
Acknowledge – that there is an issue with you or someone you care about;
Care – Express your concern to that person or yourself;
Tell – a trusted adult
“Several campers have said that they have been able to help friends or family members who were struggling with depression after participating in the Signs of Suicide program,” Maus notes.
Going Home Stronger
At least half of campers’ parents are battling an active addiction, Maus estimates, although they are not asked about recovery status. Camp Mariposa appears to be having a preventive effect on the next generation.
A new, multi-year study with Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center – School of Public Health is examining long-term substance use among Camp Mariposa attendees. “Very preliminary data from the beginning of this year indicates that almost 90% of campers and junior counselors (ages 13-17) have not had more than a few sips of alcohol, smoked marijuana or used any other substances to get high,” Maus says.
Teenagers who age out of the program are given the opportunity to remain involved with Camp Mariposa as junior counselors. Lessons learned at camp – and human connections – are reinforced throughout the year at social gatherings for alumni, younger siblings and family members.
“All of the local Camp Mariposa directors are in contact with campers and their families in between camp weekends,” Maus says, adding that referrals are made for therapy and support services as needed.
In Philadelphia, The Moyer Foundation is testing a 10-week after school program (The Mariposa Community Program) that applies the core therapeutic and educational principles from camp. The goal is to help more at-risk children learn to change their trajectories.
“The word ‘Mariposa’ means butterfly in Spanish,” Maus notes. “The name reflects both our philosophy and experience that children transform as they participate in Camp Mariposa.”
The camp’s influence may be reaching adults as well. This is what one parent had to say after learning how campers expressed their feelings about addiction:
“Hearing the thoughts of these children motivates me to remain sober and allow the change and transition of recovery to take over. This motivated me to continue doing right in order to give my child a fair chance at life.”
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For More Information Related to “An Oasis for Children of Addiction” Be Sure To Check Out These Additional Resources From DrugRehab.org:
- Social Learning Theory Of Addiction Treatment
- How Do I Get My Loved One Into Rehab?
- Will I Lose Custody Of My Child If I Go To Drug Rehab?
- The Effects of Parental Substance Abuse on Children
- Abused Children And Addiction
- Drug Addiction And Babies: Long Term Effects