Jamie and Karen Moyer: Supporting Kids in Distress Through the Moyer Foundation

Feb 23, 2012, 6:36 PM, Posted by

Moyer Jamie Moyer, Colorado Rockies and The Moyer Foundation

At age 49, Jamie Moyer is pursuing one of the most incredible comebacks in Major League Baseball history. Having signed with the Colorado Rockies, he is back on the field this week for spring training in Scottsdale. Off the field, Jamie and his wife, Karen, impact the lives of thousands of children in distress each year through The Moyer Foundation and its programs, Camp Erin and Camp Mariposa. Camp Erin is a network of free bereavement camps for children and teens who experienced the death of someone close, and Camp Mariposa is a camp and counseling support environment for children and teens with an addicted or co-dependent family member.

Tune into the CBS Weekend Evening News this weekend to see an exclusive interview at Jamie and Karen’s home and witness Jamie’s first days at spring training with the Colorado Rockies. The air date is scheduled for Saturday, February 25 at 6:30p.m. EST on CBS.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Jamie and Karen Moyer about their story in founding these programs, and efforts to help children live strong, healthy lives through these kinds of challenges.

NewPublicHealth: What inspired you to focus on kids in need, and launch Camp Erin and Camp Mariposa?

Karen Moyer: Through Jamie being a professional athlete, they’re often asked through their organization or through companies like the Make a Wish Foundation. We were asked to meet a young girl by the name of Erin Metcalf at Spring Training with the Seattle Mariners. While she lost her battle to cancer about two years after we met her, she certainly taught us a lot in that short time. Her legacy and memory will go on to help children who grieve a loss. Like a lot of people, when they face a negative situation, they start thinking outside the box about what can we do to help, and that’s what we were trying to do. Erin had sisters and she was worried about how they were going to deal. Jamie and I knew about a camp similar to Camp in Indiana where I grew up, so we took that model, brought it to the Northwest, and now it’s 40-plus strong in the United States with camps helping children who grieve a loss.

NPH: You both are personally involved, and clearly Erin had a big impact on your lives. You’re both out at the camps and meeting these kids. What’s that like for you?

Moyer Color Photo Jamie and Karen Moyer with their family

Jamie Moyer: It’s quite humbling. Being a professional athlete, you’re on a stage. I have witnessed the unfortunate side of children’s lives and something that happens to all of us, and that’s death. Remember, these kids are ages six to 17 years old, and they all deal with it differently. But to have the opportunity to go to a camp like this is very humbling because these kids are dealing with a loss and in all cases it’s someone they’ve been close to. Going to these camps, you feel for them and you learn from them, but you also see the strength they come away from the camp with.

A lot of kids walk into the camp thinking, “I’m the only one dealing with this,” but when they’re in the camp setting where every child there is dealing and coping and grieving, it allows them to have some commonality. The come to think it’s okay to be sad or to be unhappy or to grieve. We’ve watched these kids grow and heal through this camp, with professional grief counselors, but I think a lot of the healing comes from these kids rubbing elbows with each other. It's really cool to watch. These kids are growing right before your eyes. To get responses once they’ve gone back home, the responses we get back are very positive and very enlightening. It makes you feel like this is all worthwhile because you know you’re making a difference in somebody’s life.

NPH: What happens if grief is unresolved? What is the connection between bereavement and a child's health and wellbeing?

Karen Moyer: It’s scary. There are statistics about people on death row, and about 95 percent of them have lost a parent. A recent study that came out from Columbia University found that more than 90 percent of young people in drug and rehab treatment programs have experienced the death of someone important to them. It’s imperative that we deal with grief.

I know our generation and generations before, we didn’t talk about death so much. Someone passed away in your family and you had to go about your day and not talk about it. Death is confusing. When it’s someone close to you, you don’t really know how to deal and cope with that. All kinds of post-traumatic stress outcomes happen—depression and so on. It’s absolutely imperative that we as a country support people, particularly children, who are grieving a loss. Camp Erin helps offer this support. The kids are empowering each other and being empowered by being around others just like them. If they don’t face it now, it’s something that will strike them later, so I’m really glad this exists.

NPH: And what led you to create Camp Mariposa, focusing on those who are dealing with addiction within their families?

Karen Moyer: In all the years the Moyer Foundation existed, we didn’t really have a personal story until Camp Mariposa. Jamie and I really care about kids and any child in distress. We had custody of my niece for a year. It was her mother who was having addiction issues. The court mandated my niece to go to therapy. In researching options, we found that there was nothing available for this age group, for ages nine to 12—she was nine years old at the time. There’s Al-Anon for teens, but nothing for younger children. What I love about our Foundation is that I could recognize a weakness and something that didn't exist, seek out experts, and a year later we created this model. The camp is now in its fifth year in the Northwest, and finally expanding nationally in three different states. This is something that’s really, really important.

At the ages of nine to 12 years old, we can teach them the science of what happens to their brain, if it’s in their family how they need to remain abstinent, the tools of how to deal with things at home. They come to this camp every other month. For many kids, this camp gives them one safe weekend in their month. I mean that. It’s dangerous in some of their situations. They can go home with tools on how to deal with it—what is safe, who to call. Then we come back to the fact that you’re with a group of kids going through exactly what you’re going through. It normalizes it. There’s also the issue of blame when kids are dealing with something they don’t fully understand.

>>Watch a short video on Camp Mariposa:

NPH: Jamie, how did your background as a Major League Baseball player, and your career as a dad, inform how you go about this work?

Jamie Moyer: The baseball side allows us to be on a stage and to speak on behalf of these causes. Enlightening people to these causes is important. As Karen said, a lot of people don’t want to or can’t talk about these things. If you have a drug addiction, well, drugs are illegal. A lot of people say let’s just sweep it under the carpet. But if there’s a child involved, they don’t have an outlet or they don’t know where to go. Creating an awareness of this and educating people that there are places for kids to go is crucial. These kids can learn they can break the mold, they don’t have to be like that, they can live a better life—that’s part of the messaging of these camps. We’re also giving them skills. I think being an athlete and an advocate helps sends a great message to teammates and opponents and beyond that to our society that we’re all human beings and whether it’s in our immediate family or our extended family or our friends, we all know somebody that at some time in their life has been in one of these situations. Being an athlete offers a platform to raise awareness.

As a parent, you try to lead by example. You’re trying to show your children the right way and what is right and wrong. Our son is a great role model on his baseball team. Those life lessons you can give your children are important, and that extends to who you are as a person in the community. When your children can see your passion and that you’re making a difference in your community, that’s what it’s all about.

NPH: What else is needed to reinforce what’s done at your camps to offer a continuum of support, both on the grief and addiction sides?

Karen Moyer: I know with the Mariposa kids, they can get there once a month every other month. What’s crucial is to get them to counseling those weeks in between. Some of these kids are in really dangerous situations. Sometimes the parents will sign them up and the parent is incarcerated by the time the child comes to the camp. For us we’re trying to figure out transportation and an outside support system. A lot of times the kids are removed from the home and they’re with another relative. My niece had mandated counseling—let’s mandate Camp Mariposa. The courts need to get involved. It might in turn save some lives when these people are desperate.

These kids have feelings of isolation, fear, guilt, loneliness. They need to be able to recognize it’s not their fault. They need to know they can make the right choices. Every kid I visit in the camp and I make them look me in the eyes, and I say, “You can make a different choice. It is in your power to be different. And we are going to be breaking the cycle of addiction.” For us as a country, we need to have a profound effect on something that’s been around a very long time. It affects your neighbor, it affects my neighbor, it affects your kid’s best friend in school, and it affects people in inner cities. It’s everywhere.

NPH: Thinking five years down the road, where would you like the Moyer Foundation to be?

Jamie Moyer: We need to create more messaging and educate people on what these programs are. We’ve teamed up with the New York Life Foundation and they’ve been a great partner, but our goal is to create more partnerships to get this national. We have the ability to reach many more kids, and we know through research there are more than a million kids who need this. The more we can reach the better. We also need the funding to do that. These camps can be in many communities around the country to address all of these problems—it’s in every community. We have the ability to touch a lot of people, but it takes a lot of man power, a lot of messaging and a lot of time and money. We already have the blueprints for the camps, and we’re willing to put the knowledge and the time in. We have a national bereavement camp conference, and we share ideas with bereavement professionals across the country. But we need to bring this program across the country. Let’s face the problems instead of hiding them, as a society.

Karen Moyer: We also want to expand the camps—there are a lot more populations we could be reaching. We work now with military families, we would like to work with Native American communities who wouldn’t have access to our existing camps. With Mariposa, let’s have judges mandate it. If they’re mandating it then we have to have Camp Mariposas everywhere. We usually partner with addiction treatment programs and they exist all over the country. This is our responsibility. If we want to next generation to be better than us, and we should, then these are the things that can help.

>>Watch a piece from ESPN's E60 on Camp Erin.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.