Wandling, Sallie

Written by Linda Kirkpatrick on .







Sallie Wandling

(1958 - )


Born and raised in Prairie Village, Kansas. Earned her Masters in Social Work at the University of Kansas.

She and her husband, Lee, moved to Colorado in 1991 after six months of marriage, planning their move around getting tickets to see Ricky Lee Jones and Lyle Lovett together at Red Rocks Amphitheater.

A friend, Dr. Richard Powell, who was serving on the board of directors of Mt. Evans Hospice (now Mt. Evans Home Health and Hospice) that had formed in 1980, encouraged Sallie to apply for a position at the agency in 1991 where, upon being hiried,  she she initially served as social worker, bereavement director, group leader and counselor.

As the leader of a support group for children and teens who had lost a parent, friend or family member, she noticed that "the kids really helped each other but they all went to different schools.  In a very poignant moment a child cried, 'I don't know anyone else like me,' " Sallie remembered.

She'd heard of a hospice on the East Coast offering a day program and contacted that group.  The idea of Camp Comfort grew from there.

The camp started in 1995 at Camp Santa Maria in Grant, Colorado, where 30 young people experienced grief workshops, dressing angel dolls to resemble the loved ones who'd died, and doing all sorts of the usual activities associated with a summer camp. Children are encouraged to talk about the parent, sibling, grandparent or other loved one who died.

"The director of Mt. Evans and the board were extremely supportive of the idea and allowed us to be creative in its conception.  We were the first weekend camp [of this kind] that we knew of in the country."  The agency brainstormed and researched children's grief activities, visited seven different camps, and created the foundation for what is still Camp Comfort."  Wendy Snow was also a key player in the early camps.

"The weather was perfect and it went so well that we were afraid to repeat it," Sallie said, referring to the first year.  "We could tell we really had something."

In 1998 Camp Comfort grew to two camps each summer due to demand.  Nearly 1,400 children have gone through the program to date.  Initially, Mt. Evans attempted to accommodate young people into their teens but have elected to focus just on children ages roughly 6-12.

Since 2004 Camp Comfort has been held at the Easter Seal Handicamp in Empire, Colorado, which has proven to be more readily accessible.  Facilities there include a Zipline in addition to the expected fishing, swimming, hiking, horseback riding and arts-and-crafts experiences.

Tweaking of activities has taken place, but not a lot of change has occurred, according to Sallie, who is no longer directly involved with leading the camp.

Only about 10 percent of those who attend come from the Mt. Evans service area (the mountain communities in Clear Creek, Jefferson, Park and Gilpin counties).  Participants have come from 10 different states, Mexico and Canada.  With two similar camps now operating in Colorado, Mt. Evans is able to refer campers to Estes Park and Grand Junction, which may be more convenient.

Each camp utilizes 60 volunteers and just three paid staff.  Buddies, as volunteers are called, must go through background checks as well as training before being accepted.  Volunteers initially were paired 1:1 with a child for the entire weekend, but that practice has changed to 2 children for every 1 adult buddy, mainly to be able to accommodate more children, as buddies are lodged overnight as well.

Children and buddies spend two nights in cabins outfitted with multiple sets of bunkbeds.  "Day buddies" provide additional support without spending the night, and volunteers with Trout Unlimited show up one day to conduct the fishing activities.

Three prior campers have returned to become buddies themselves.  A buddy previously paired with one of the three campers-turned-buddies is still active with Camp Comfort, Sallie noted.

In 2012 the budget to accommodate more than 100 children during two camp sessions annually is $50,000.  The actual cost is $600 per child, but the agency charges just $150 per child.  Fundraising enables the agency to subsidize the fees collected and to give numerous partial scholarships.

Families join children in a ceremony at the end of the weekend camp experience.  Parents and guardians are given a list of resources in their areas, and Mt. Evans frequently continues to provide assistance by phone after the camp experience.

"The goals of the camp are to be sure that children know they are not alone in their grief, to give them tools to cope with their grief, to help them preserve memories, and to provide them a place to have fun and just be kids," Sallie points out.

Sallie has served as a consultant to other groups wishing to start similar camps for grieving children.  Since the first camp, her husband, Lee, has provided all the T-shirts for campers, volunteers and staff.

As Senior Director of Community Relations, Sallie Wandling works to promote Mt. Evans Home Health and Hospice throughout the state.

Click to see related story and photos.

Source:  Interview with Sallie Wandling