Helping children overcome grief

Posted: March 24th, 2017 | Feature, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Ken Williams | Editor

Longtime North Park resident Cara Allen has been named clinical director of Experience Camps, a national nonprofit devoted to helping children who have experienced the death of a loved one.

Cara Allen has been named clinical director of Experience Camps.

Allen has more than 14 years of experience in bereavement, currently running a private psychotherapy practice in San Diego.

About 1.5 million children are living in a single-family household due to the death of one parent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Grieving children are at higher risk than their non-grieving peers for depression, anxiety, poor school attendance and higher dropout rates, isolation, behavioral problems, lowered academic achievement, drug and/or alcohol abuse, incarceration or suicide, according to Experience Camps officials.

Allen is a licensed clinical social worker and has worked extensively in bereavement for the past 14 years at Sharp Healthcare, where she was awarded both Social Worker of the Year and the prestigious Sally Bruener Haugh Spirit of Caring awards. She has been involved with Experience Camps since 2014.

Here are five questions with Cara Allen:

Question 1: What are Experience Camps?

“Experience Camps are one-week camps for boys and girls who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. It’s a place where kids can laugh, cry, play, create, remember the person who died, or forget the grief that weighs them down. It’s a place where they can feel ‘normal,’ because everyone there has been through something similar and understands what it’s like to lose someone important to them. It’s a home away from home. And just about everyone will tell you: ‘It’s the best week of the year.’ In 2017, Experience Camps will have over 450 campers at camps in Maine, California, New York and Georgia.”

Question 2: What is the California Experience?

“The California Experience is a one-week camp for boys and girls, entering grades four through 12 in summer of 2017, who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. It is held at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, California.”

Question 3: What is your role with the nonprofit organization and what are your goals for the program?

“As clinical director, my goal is to ensure that our campers feel safe, understood and supported. I create programing that allows campers to express their grief in age-appropriate ways and to develop coping mechanisms that assist them when they get home from camp.

“I support our clinical teams so they can best meet the children’s needs during camp and I facilitate connections with like-minded organizations and people who can offer additional services to our youth when they’re not at camp. I inject a clinically informed perspective into program and strategic discussions that are shaping the future of the organization.

Cara Allen and her partner, Dan, and their two dogs at their home in North Park (Courtesy of Cara Allen)

“My goal for our program is to provide the best experience for grieving youth possible. I am excited to help spread the word to the many kids out there who could benefit from spending a week with us, becoming a part of our community. Working together with local professionals, we are continuing to grow the organization to help as many bereaved children as possible, while expanding our services to include more year-round programming for campers and their caregivers.”

Question 4: What is your professional background?

“I came to San Diego in 1998 after college for a temporary job with the American Red Cross. It was when they were still located on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest and I worked in their disaster services department in a program sponsored by AmeriCorps. It was intended to be a one-year stay in San Diego that has turned into nearly 20.

“I attended San Diego State University for graduate school, earning my master of social work degree in 2001. During that time I volunteered in the rape crisis program at the Center for Community Solutions, and interned at Casa de las Campanas and the San Diego LGBT Community Center in Hillcrest. From there I worked in a small nonprofit providing wraparound services to youth before becoming a part of the Sharp HealthCare team in 2003. I worked at Sharp Memorial Hospital, Mary Birch Hospital for Women and Newborns, and in the Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute at Sharp.

“My professional life has always included work with grief and loss in many different forms. After earning my professional license, I started my private practice, guiding people through life transitions of all kinds. It is work I continue to love doing. In 2014 a chance email from an oncologist led me to Experience Camps. Joining their team initially as a director of camper services for the California camp, and now transitioning into the full-time national role.”

Question 5: What do you like about living in North Park?

“I have lived in and around North Park since I came to San Diego. It has changed so much, but has always felt like home. My partner, Dan, and I live with our two dogs in a Spanish home in Morley Field that is over 100 years old.

“We enjoy the diversity of the community here, the warmth of our neighbors, and the commitment of the community to retain its history. Of course, the ease of walking to restaurants, shops and breweries is fantastic!

Dan, Cara and their dogs in front of the mural on the side wall outside Belching Beaver Brewery’s North Park tasting room (Courtesy of Cara Allen)

“We lovingly refer to Balboa Park as our front yard, and are always happy strolling around in the evenings there. Last year, my parents moved from Pennsylvania to North Park, so that is another thing that I love. Being three blocks away from them instead of 3,000 miles is amazing! Since my work with Experience Camps is done remotely from my home, I get even more time to enjoy all that North Park has to offer. There is something so wonderful about working while watching the hummingbirds outside my window. Once in a while I even catch a glimpse of the parrots!”

For more information about the Experience Camps, visit

—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.

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