Elba Longo worried that the trauma her two sons experienced at an early age might one day turn them violent.
When Jovani and Jose were 7 and 8 years old, respectively, they had to cope with the death of a close family friend, Tony Martinez, who used to watch over them and play with them while their parents were at work. In 1997, Martinez, 22, of Falls Church, was cleaning what he thought was an unloaded .35-caliber pistol when it went off in his face, killing him.
A year later, the boys' uncle, William "Willie" Vila, 24, who was like a second father to them, was murdered in Oxon Hill. His body was found on a street; he had been shot several times with a .357 magnum.
The killer eventually went to jail, but Elba Longo's boys, who live in Riverdale, struggled to understand the two deaths. As they grew older, their grief turned to anger. Their grades fell. They started misbehaving in school.
Then the family discovered Camp Forget-Me-Not.
The free sleep-away grief camp, which is marking its fifth year this month, gathers 50 youths from the Washington region who have lost a parent, sibling or other close relative. Organizers from the D.C.-based Wendt Center for Loss and Healing say the camp gives children an opportunity to gently explore the process of grief away from their everyday lives.
For the Longo boys, who attended the camp last year and are now 14 and 15, it was the first time they had been with a group of children who had experienced similar heartbreak. At the camp, their anger was understood, and they didn't have to feel so different, their mother said.
"When they came back, I've never seen them so excited," Longo said. "The camp started a change; it was a big thing. . . . Their grades started changing, their behavior started changing. . . . Their anger went away."
Of the 50 children attending this year's three-day camp, which begins Friday in Millersville, 32 experienced multiple deaths in their family; six lost both a mother and a father. Almost half lost a family member to homicide.
"The camp provides a piece of the puzzle for those learning to cope with their grief," said Stephanie Handel, the camp coordinator and a children's grief therapist at the Wendt Center. "It's really important to know there are other kids out there who also have experienced death."
The children are each partnered with a volunteer counselor who stays with them during the weekend. The staff members also have had a death in the family.
Lora Ann Hamilton of Springfield, a volunteer who lost a younger brother to a chromosomal disorder when she was 14, said the camp provides fun activities to energize the children and just enough support to help them through the grieving process.
Nearly all of the children will grieve openly at some point over the weekend, she said. The release of emotions often seems to lift the burden of their trauma.
"They try to build a group dynamic with the other kids and adults where they can be really comfortable, so that if they do break down, it won't be uncomfortable," Hamilton said. "In their general life in their schools, they are singled out for losing their mother or father. But, at the camp, they are totally one of the whole group, where everyone, including the adults, has had some kind of loss."
According to researchers at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the death of a family member from sudden illness, an accident or homicide inhibits the grieving process in children. They can get "stuck" in the traumatic aspects of the death and may never fully move past it. The syndrome is known as "childhood traumatic grief."
"Not all children who lose a loved one in traumatic circumstances develop childhood traumatic grief, but clearly some do," Judith Cohen, a physician who leads the network's grief task force, said in a report. "And, in those cases, it's critical to treat the trauma symptoms so that the children can move through the grieving process."
For instance, the children at the camp are asked to decorate small wooden boats with designs that honor their deceased loved ones. The Longo boys wrote "Willie" on both sides of their boat, after their uncle, and painted a flag of Puerto Rico, their family's native homeland, on its sails.
On the last night, the campers are asked to launch the vessels onto a lake and watch them disappear from view -- a symbolic goodbye.
"The boys still talk about it. . . . They say it was the best camp they've ever been to," Elba Longo said. "It helped them see death and tragedy in a whole different way."
For information on enrolling a child or volunteering at Camp Forget-Me-Not, call 202-624-0010 or visit www.wendtcenter.org/programs/camp.htm.