Camp was safe haven after 9/11
Mathai (right) first attended then volunteered at “America’s Camp.”
For Michelle Mathai ’12, the tenth anniversary of September 11 marked a private occasion, as she went home to her family in Arlington, Mass. to remember and honor her father, Joseph Mathai, who died when the Twin Towers fell.
The family has many family members and friends living in New York, and Mathai’s father, a graduate of Columbia University, frequently visited the Towers on business as a technology consultant.
The summer after the attacks, Mathai and her brother Robert attended America’s Camp, a one-week summer camp in the Berkshires that was created as a safe haven for kids who had lost a parent or a sibling in the attacks.
“America’s Camp was just a normal summer camp, but it was special to us because it was a place where no media was allowed,” Mathai said. “We were all constantly being contacted by news reporters and featured in the news, so it was amazing to have a place where we could just be ourselves and didn’t have to act like everything was OK.” The camp’s staff was made up of volunteers, with at least one counselor per child. In later years, campers, including Mathai and her younger brother Robert, returned every summer to serve as counselors themselves.
“America’s Camp changed my life. It helped me grieve and realize that I wasn’t the only one grieving, that I wasn’t alone,” she said. “It’s so humbling to go back year after year and see these kids develop. They are so strong and happy. A lot of them are too young to remember 9/11 and don’t have memories of the person they lost, and it reminds me to be grateful that I have memories to look back on.”
This summer was the camp’s last and marked the end of a significant chapter in the campers’ lives. Campers were encouraged to live by the idea that it is “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” On their last night, campers each made small “wish boats” in which they placed a candle and let sail on the water.
“The wish boat ceremony was one of the biggest nights of camp. It was a very emotional week,” Mathai said. “We’ve all been coming here for the past 10 years and we’ve become a very close knit group. The friends you make here have an understanding of each other that no one else has.” Though Mathai hasn’t shared her story with many people on the Hill, she feels comforted by the campus community as a whole. “I didn’t want my loss to be something that defined me once I got to college,” she said. “Even though not everyone knew about what happened, I always felt very supported and cared for, and I knew I wouldn’t have trouble finding help. This is a very welcoming community, and my closest friends are very supportive.”
Although she wasn’t on campus for the College’s remembrance ceremony, she commended the event. “The grief is something I deal with every day, so for me it doesn’t matter if there is a ceremony or something on that particular day,” she said. “But I do appreciate that people are still remembering [September 11] and that, especially on a college campus, people are taking the time to bring the real world back a little bit. Although it was hard to accept what happened because everyone else was also hurting, in the long run it’s like everyone is grieving with me, and that can be nice, too.”