The Healing Power of a Wilderness Camp Helps a Grieving Child

Jill Folts was running errands when her phone rang. "This is Detective Wells. I'm looking for Colton Folts's mother." Jill's chest tightened. Why would the police be calling about her nine-year-old son? It had been a terrible year for him. Now what was wrong?

She regretted that they'd ever moved to the tiny town of Laurel, Montana, trying to make a fresh start after the death of her husband, Justin, a former Army medic. Colton hadn't made a single friend in the fifth grade. In fact, he'd been bullied.

"What happened?" she said.

"It's all good," Detective Jason Wells said. "I want to tell you about a sleepaway camp sponsored by a faith-based organization called Volunteers of America. The counselors are all peace officers. The resource officer at Colton's school thought he'd really like it. It's the week of June 17."

Jill agreed. Then she remembered: That was when she and her son were going to Disneyland. She'd already paid for the trip. Now, after talking to Detective Wells, she thought her son might need the camp more.

It had been 15 months since Justin died, on Valentine's Day, 2013, of myasthenia gravis, a debilitating neuromuscular disease he'd been diagnosed with after coming home from Iraq.

Colton was very close to Justin, who was the first person he'd run to after school. Justin had talked to Colton about persevering, standing up for himself, keeping a positive attitude. "Your dad is always with you," Jill told him. But Colton wasn't sure what that even meant. He felt lost without his dad.

Kyle Bryant, a Laurel policeman and the school resource officer, saw that Colton sat by himself at lunch and that other kids picked on him.

Sometimes Colton would talk to Bryant about his dad. Despite how he was struggling, "he was always courteous, very respectful," Bryant said. "He had this great personality."

Bryant nominated Colton for Camp POSTCARD, a weeklong wilderness experience for about 80 fifth and sixth graders from across Montana. Through leadership and teambuilding activities, they gain confidence and self-esteem. Detective Wells would be a counselor.

Colton was excited about the camp. Jill was able to switch the date for Disneyland. But when she dropped Colton off at the camp bus, he was worried. He'd never been away from home. "What if the kids don't like me?" he said.

"Remember what your dad told you?" she asked him. "Think positive."

The first day, a challenge stared Colton right in the face—a towering 60-foot climbing wall. Halfway up, his strength gave out and he slid back to the bottom. But it wasn't like at school. No one laughed. Here everyone was pulling for him. "Other kids just gravitated to him," Detective Wells recalls.

Colton really got into the team-building exercises. He was chosen to help raise and lower the flag each day.

Still, that wall loomed. Colton kept trying to climb it, but it seemed insurmountable. Until the last day, when he got to the top. The camp cheered.

At the closing ceremony, a National Guardsman presented Colton with a folded flag. It reminded him of the flag he received after his father's funeral.

Suddenly Colton understood what his mom had been telling him. "It was like my dad was giving me a big hug."

When Jill picked him up, he was grinning. "They loved me," he said.

It's been two years since Colton attended Volunteers of America Northern Rockies' Camp POSTCARD. He's on his school's football and track teams. He's surrounded by friends at lunch. Nothing seems insurmountable to him anymore. He can't wait till he turns 15. That's when he can return to camp as a junior mentor and teach younger kids about perseverance and positivity. Just like his dad taught him.