With the arrival of summer, many Americans will go camping. The most recent statistics suggest over 40 million of us enjoy sleeping under the stars, but for one Virginia woman living outside is a healing experience – a way to grapple with the grief of losing a child.
It’s been more than a year since Jennifer Dekle O’Carroll’s oldest son was set to graduate from high school, and she says, he had a promising future.
“Joey was 17 years old. He was two months shy of his 18th birthday, absolutely brilliant. He had qualified for the nuclear program in the navy. We had wonderful conversations about his future – about him getting a storage unit to put his stuff in while he was in basic training. His death was ruled as a suicide, however I 100% know that it was not.”
What happened to Joey remains a mystery to his mother. On the night of his death the family heard a loud noise. They thought maybe a tree had fallen in the neighborhood. The next morning, Jennifer was sitting on her deck, enjoying the first warm day of spring as her kids left for school and their dad left for work.
“And then I got a text message from my other sons saying that Joey wasn’t on the bus," O'Carroll recalls. "My first thought was Joey overslept.”
So she headed up to the third floor to wake him.
“It took me a while to get into his room. He was blocking the door. It’s not something I can un-see now," she says. "I saw the gun on the floor, and my first thought was, ‘Why does Joey have a toy gun in his room?’ My brain didn’t put the pieces together at all.”
She wasn’t aware Joey owned a gun or had ever used a firearm, and she wonders if the shooting was an accident. Whatever happened, O’Carroll could no longer sleep peacefully in her own house. She ended up camping in the back yard.
“Being in the woods or being at the beach or being anywhere outside – it’s just soothing,” O'Carroll explains.
She thought of how she might honor Joey and give meaning to his death, and she resolved to create a campground where other grieving parents could come. She put out a call for camping gear through Facebook and Nextdoor. Days later donations started coming in, filling her front porch where we sat talking.
“As you can see it just keeps showing up," she says with a smile. "We’ve got a whole pile of stuff all the way around the side and a very full shed.”
As if on cue, a UPS truck pulled up with five more packages.
“Thank you," she says as three boxes arrive.
"I‘ve got two more for you.," the driver warns.
She’s gotten tents and yurts, lanterns and grills.
“This is two camping chairs and a camping couch!” O'Carroll says as she slices open one of the boxes.
She has found just the place for all of these gifts – a 14-acre site in southern Albemarle County.
“When you turn the corner onto the road there’s a tiny, tiny cemetery – maybe 15 graves, very old," she recalls. "I got out of the car and stood at it, and the center largest grave, the first name on it is Joseph, and that told me that that was the right piece.”
A troop of Girl Scouts has offered to plant a garden there. A massage therapist and a grief counselor volunteered their services, and an artist said she would offer workshops. O’Carroll plans to host her first group of about 30 people in August
“I’m not a grief guru. I don’t have all of the answers," she admits. " So many people think I have a solution. I don’t, but I know we need each other, and we need outdoors, peace in our hearts and peace in our minds.”
You can learn more about the Peace Tree Camp Project on Facebook.