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Camp's Message Gets Supersized

The stadium-sized gig isn't the only one on Hughes' plate. Last week she completed her first book, "You Are Not Alone: Teens Talk About Life After the Loss of a Parent," to be published Sept. 1 by Scholastic.

The convergence of these opportunities, in addition to Hughes' having been named one of Redbook's "movers and shakers" in 2002 and exposure the year before in People magazine, has brought national attention to Comfort Zone. It's likely just beginning. Attention from her speech at the Million Dollar Round Table could catapult the camp to the ranks of renowned nonprofits such as "Make-a-Wish Foundation." That charity exploded after having been featured at the same convention 14 years ago.

For Hughes, it's a welcome, albeit daunting, challenge. "Initially I was against franchising because I was concerned about the integrity of the program. But there are so few resources for grieving children," she says. "We're setting the standard and raising the bar even for ourselves."

Since Comfort Zone began, 1,600 boys and girls ages 7 to 17 have attended. The free camps are held in at locations in Richmond and New Jersey — the latter site arising in response to 9/11. Seven weekend sessions and one weeklong camp are held from March to October. In most cases, those who attend, including counselors and adult "Big Buddies," have experienced the death of a close loved one. Ultimately Hughes hopes the camp can find and fund its own permanent campsite.

Summer camp was a place of discovery for Hughes. It took on new meaning after her own tragedies. She was 9 when her mother died. Her father died fewer than three years later. Camp quickly became a place of refuge where she could forget her pain and play. Today, she's piggybacked grief therapy onto that concept, in an attempt to reach kids and create an environment in which it's OK to talk about death. Apart from the losses they share, a common denominator exists, she says: "Most kids don't know they're not alone until they come to camp. They become an instant member of a club or family they never knew they had." — Brandon Walters

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