PALMYRA, Va. -- Camp Friendship, nestled outside the Blue Ridge Mountains in Palmyra, Virginia, is a scenic campsite dedicated to letting children be children.
On one particular September weekend, the sound of laughter and play was heard echoing throughout the campsite’s recreational center, as kids competed in silly games like thumb war and yodeling contests.
At first glance, you’d never know this is a camp for children grieving the loss of a loved one. You'd never know the children were led by a counselor who, on this very day, was mourning the 20th anniversary of her own father’s death.
“That day, I will never, ever forget, ever,” Katie Pereira said.
Pereira was just seven years old when her father was killed on September 11, 2001.
Franco Lalama worked as an engineer with the Port Authority.
“My fondest and favorite memories are me going to work with him,” Pereira said. “I loved doing that because it was just me and him, it was our time together.”
While Lalama had called Pereira’s mother that morning to say he was safe, it’s believed that he lost his life when the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
Lalama was last seen trying to help coworkers to safety.
“I don’t remember the last words I said to him, I don’t remember our last moments together,” Pereira said through tears. “As all these years go by and as I get older, I worry about forgetting him completely.”
In the wake of her father’s death, Pereira’s mom enrolled her and her sisters in the Comfort Zone Camp.
Camp founder Lynne Hughes brought the Richmond-based camp to Washington and New Jersey, just a few months after the attacks, to help grieving families.
“They were pretty much numb and shell shocked but they did show up and they showed up hopeful,” Hughes said.
Hughes said she fondly remembered meeting Pereira.
“Katie is a ray of sunshine and she was at seven years old,” Hughes said. “Even though she was grieving and having a hard time, camp was her thing! I mean, when she got there, she lit up and she had this infectious laugh. Everyone knew who Katie Lalama was!”
Pereira said the comfort and support provided by the camp had a lasting impression.
Pereira returned to Comfort Zone year after year as a camper until she was old enough to become a mentoring “Big Buddy” to younger campers.
Now as a wife and mother, Pereira is a beloved member of the camp staff.
“I was exactly their age, I was in their position at one point,” Pereira said. “Seeing grief through a seven-year-old’s eyes is really hard because they’re so so young, but they’re also wise and they know- they know what they’re feeling.”
Through healing circles and campfires, children and teens share stories with their peers and write letters to their loved ones.
Through recreational games, arts and crafts, and skits, the kids form bonds of friendship. Pereira said those feelings of belonging, helped her on her long journey to healing.
“I know for me, I was just so happy. I knew that all these people are here for me,” Pereira said. “It’s just a really good feeling. I love knowing that I can be here for all these kids in some way.”
Pereira isn’t the only 9/11 camper repaying the kindness and support that she once received from the Comfort Zone Camp.
Several former campers, now adults, still come back to camp as volunteers and mentors. Many now have careers in counseling, teaching, or public service.
Two decades later, Pereira said Comfort Zone Camp still felt like a home away from home.
“I do feel with a lot of kids, it’s full circle when they come back into this program," she said.
At sundown, campers aged 7 to 17 gathered at the lake of Camp Friendship to commemorate the 20th anniversary of September 11.
Speaking in unison, the group said “We’ll never forget,” before releasing floating tea lights in remembrance of the victims of the attacks that changed a nation and the lives of 2,996 families.
“The support I got from Comfort Zone, it gave me my life back,” Pereira said. “It really did.”
According to the Comfort Zone Camp, more than 300 families impacted by 9/11 attended camps in Washington, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Since its founding in 1999, more than 20,000 children nationwide have benefited from the camp.
This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.