Woonsocket family finds life purpose through camp

Woonsocket family finds life purpose through camp

The Nespolo family has been volunteering at Camp BraveHeart for the past seven years, since the loss of their mother and wife. The experience has led father, Michael Sr. and daughter, Melissa, to learn they had a talent for grief counseling, which they now use professionally and in other groups. From left are Michael Jr., Michael Sr. and Mellissa Nespolo. (Breeze photo by Sandy Seoane)

WOONSOCKET – Lifelong Woonsocket residents Melissa Nespolo and her father, Michael Nespolo, joined the staff at Camp BraveHeart as a way to give back to Hope Hospice of Rhode Island, the organization that provided end-of-life care through the loss of their mother and wife.

“I was hesitant to volunteer the first time,” said Melissa of her decision to work with the North Scituate-based camp that helps children cope with grief.

That was seven years ago, before Melissa earned a master’s degree in art therapy and began a career helping others to process grief through art. It was also before Michael began running support groups and launched a group for local widows that now has more than 250 members.

Through coping with their own grief, it seems, both found their calling.

Melissa was 23 when she lost her mother Jeanne following a battle with cancer. It was at her father’s urging that she joined the camp’s art program.

At the time, “I had no idea what I was doing with my life,” she said. “I liked working with kids but I hated the bureaucratic side of teaching.”

Counselors in the program teach the young campers, many of whom have lost a parent or other close relative, how to use art to express and cope with their emotions. Projects change each year and have included creation of colorful meditation jars, flags representing loved ones, or masks that express their strengths. One year, a tree fell on the grounds of Camp Aldersgate, where the program is run, and staff cut it into small chunks to create wood necklaces, teaching the campers how things carry on in a different form.

“We make things with them that help them to process grief,” Melissa explained.

It was a fellow staff member at the camp who encouraged her to pursue a degree in the field.

Since graduating, Melissa has landed a job at Arbor Counseling Services in Fall River. She says she announced when she got the job that time off to volunteer at the annual camp was non-negotiable.

At Arbor, Melissa utilizes the skills she first learned at BraveHeart, working with children, teens and young adults.

“I get to make art every day and it’s wonderful,” she said. “My favorite thing is teaching how to use art as a coping skill, even to those who don’t necessarily consider themselves artistic.”

She is now completing her art therapy license and license in mental health counseling. This is her seventh year at BraveHeart.

“I learn so much from the kids and seeing how they view things,” she said. “I use the things I learn from them to go forth and work with others.”

Art is one of the programs at the free two-day camp for children ages 4-17. The camp offers grief counseling and activities including sports, movies and other activities. This year, more than 100 campers signed up.

“We never turn anyone away,” said Becky Sizelove, communications specialist for Hope Hospice.

And like the Nespolo family, many of the children return each year.

“They say it feels like family to them,” said Sizelove.

Michael has worked as a counselor for seven years and son Michael Jr., who has autism, serves as his assistant. This year, the pair worked with a group of 12 year olds

“It’s an opportunity where kids get to have fun with other kids who are dealing with what they’re dealing with,” Melissa said, pointing out that many of the kids may feel isolated in other settings, like schools.

“They find kinship with each other,” she said. “It’s not weird for them at that instant.”

Michael senior spent 16 months in a support group after his wife’s death and joined the camp that year. Now, he runs those groups.

He says it was the compassionate and professional care the family received from Hope Hospice & Palliative Care Rhode Island, that inspired him to give back to the organization while making an impact on other families who have experienced loss.

“They helped us through a lot,” he said.

He also started the widows’ group that now has 250 members.

“I guess this is my calling in life,” he said.

Melissa said, “It’s the least we can do.”

“It’s an amazing journey,” said Michael. “We give it back.”