Throughout her childhood, Michele Prince was repeatedly forced to face tragedy. First, a friend from school committed suicide. The next year, her nephew died. The year after that, her mother passed away.
“There really wasn’t any support at that time,” the Santa Monica resident said. “It would have been really helpful to me.”
It’s the kind of assistance she now provides as executive director of Our House Grief Support Center, which offers a wide variety of bereavement services to children and adults on the Westside.
Prince’s agency also runs a local iteration of Camp Erin, a free weekend for children and teenagers who have experienced the death of a loved one over the last three years. There are typically two sessions each summer with about 75 kids at a time, including a booked-up weekend Aug. 19-21 at Camp Bloomfield in Malibu. Next year’s local Camp Erin sessions will be held June 23-25 and Aug. 18-20.
Camp Erin, backed by the Seattle-based Moyer Foundation, is named after Erin Metcalf, a family friend of Major League Baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer who died of cancer when she was 17. The camp provides a combination of fun activities, grief support and moments for reflection.
At one point, kids partake in a scavenger hunt on a hiking trail, searching for pre-planted rocks that are emblazoned with emotion words. The kids then convene as a group, using the rocks to help them express their thoughts.
“It’s really beautiful,” Prince said. “The kids get to hear, ‘Oh, I was angry too.’ Everybody shares that experience. They all cry. They all might feel some relief. They might feel sad. But they take comfort in knowing there are others who have these common experiences and thoughts.”
It’s a labor of passion for Prince, a Michigan native who moved to Southern California after the Northridge earthquake in 1994. At the time she had a career in advertising and marketing, working for Honda as well as Rubin Postaer and Associates, a Santa Monica-based advertising agency.
All the while, though, Prince felt compelled to put her skills to use in a setting where she could help others. So she earned a master’s from USC in social work, got a degree in nonprofit management from Hebrew Union College and joined the oncology staff at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center around 2003.
During her time in graduate school she learned about Our House Grief Support Center, which she joined in 2012 after a stint as director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.
In addition to spearheading Camp Erin weekends, Prince’s agency serves grieving adults and children throughout Santa Monica. The grief support center provides services for Santa Monica High School as well as John Adams and Lincoln middle schools and McKinley and Roosevelt elementary schools. The organization also works with local agencies like the Santa Monica Housing Authority, Community Corporation of Santa Monica and the CLARE Foundation as well as various units at local hospitals.
But the Camp Erin sessions are particularly rewarding for Prince, who noted that children come from many different neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds. Between activities like rock climbing and campfires, they also craft photo boards and memorial lanterns and take part in other grief-related projects.
“The kids bond from the minute they get on the bus,” Prince said. “For some of them, it’s the first time they’re meeting another child who’s going through the same experience. … The power of that is they have a different way of relating to one another. It helps them feel strong that they’re not the only ones.”