Women In Wellness: Sara Deren of Experience Camps On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Work-life balance isn’t a thing — Girls and women are often told we can “have it all.” And many of us can, but not all at once. Sometimes you prioritize work, sometimes family, and sometimes yourself, but I’ve found that if I attempt to achieve “balance,” I risk failing in every area. Instead, I try to allow myself to move between priorities without judging my choices.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Deren.
Sara Deren is the founder and CEO of Experience Camps, a national non-profit that provides free, over-night camp to children who have lost a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. Sara left a lucrative Wall Street job to apply her C-Suite leadership acumen to help grieving children because she knew that through play, connection and joy (and a team of clinicians) she could help change lives. Sara holds an MBA from Columbia University, is an avid runner, the mother of three, and was named a “Patriots Difference Maker” by the New England Patriots Foundation.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Most people assume I started an organization for grieving children because of my own grief experience, but that’s not the case. It all began when I married the owner-director of a summer camp in Maine and left my IT career to create a non-profit kids camp. The stars aligned when a nearby camp inspired us to host a grief program; it quickly became clear why programs like ours need to exist.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
I had my first child in 2009, the year Experience Camps started. During staff orientation, we read camper applications to familiarize ourselves with the people we were about to meet: kids dealing with a parent’s death. I was overwhelmed by the idea that my family could be shattered instantly by a diagnosis, accident, or violence. The stories I read that day, and the thousands more I’ve heard since, serve as a constant reminder to make every day count.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In our second year, we were invited to bring 40 grieving kids to the play Arabian Nights. As the final scenes unfolded, I began to realize that everyone in the play dies. I felt a rising sense of panic that we had done something horribly wrong by exposing grieving children to a story about death. But afterward, all I heard was lighthearted chatter. The kids were fine. That night I learned that people are way more resilient than we give them credit for, especially when they’re with others who “get it.” We also got lucky, since the content could have triggered a child with past experiences of violence. We learned to be more trauma-informed in our programs to deliver emotionally safe experiences for all.
Let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
Grief is not only a personal tragedy, it’s a health and wellness issue. Studies show people with early parental loss are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. But with support, grief can foster post-traumatic growth.
Experience Camps is a national non-profit that provides a network of no-cost camps for children who experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. By reframing the experience of grief and empowering kids with confidence, skills, and support, we transform the lives of thousands of children. Our goal is to reach millions more by changing the way society engages around these issues.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
Whether you are grieving a death, job loss, or the way life was pre-pandemic, these insights can support your journey towards wellbeing.
- Sit in the muck — You don’t need to try to fix grief. Showing up for someone who is grieving can mean being present and holding space for their pain to exist.
- Don’t assume — Everyone grieves differently. There is no right or wrong way, no timeline, no predetermined stages. Everyone is the expert in their own grief.
- Share a story — Saying the name of the person who died, sharing stories or asking questions can help the griever feel connected to others, one key to wellbeing.
- Check back in — As a person develops through different stages, so does their grief. Be aware, since milestones such as graduations and weddings can create new waves of grief.
- Talk about grief — Many people are afraid to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all. Opening up about your own grief or acknowledging someone else’s helps build connection.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Grief is a massively overlooked issue when it comes to wellbeing. Everyone deals with grief at some point, yet 70% of Americans say they don’t know what to say or do when someone is grieving.
People going through grief tell me it’s profoundly isolating. They need to be surrounded by people who make them feel supported, connected, and seen. That happens at Experience Camps, and our movement is to build that eco-system of grief support everywhere to promote wellness throughout life.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Celebrate the wins — When managing a growing organization, challenges can take center stage. I remind myself to celebrate successes along the way.
- Lead with strength — With coaching and reflection, I’ve learned what my strengths are and where I need to tap other people’s to balance and supplement my own. Building a team with strength compatibility is both effective and empowering.
- Work-life balance isn’t a thing — Girls and women are often told we can “have it all.” And many of us can, but not all at once. Sometimes you prioritize work, sometimes family, and sometimes yourself, but I’ve found that if I attempt to achieve “balance,” I risk failing in every area. Instead, I try to allow myself to move between priorities without judging my choices.
- Thinking is working, too — I spent the early years rolling up my sleeves and getting things done. Now our organization has reached a new stage of size and maturity, which requires something different of me as a leader. I’ve had to adjust my definition of productivity to allow time for thoughts to flow.
- Put on your oxygen mask first — To absorb the stories that drive our mission, I read every application we receive, and I carry a piece of each with me. But with 1,000 grieving children applying for our programs each year, the weight of those pieces adds up. To care for myself, I try to take breaks and notice the joy that permeates the heaviness of grief.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Mental health is finally getting more traction with employers and the media. Celebrities are speaking about their struggles. There’s more openness around issues like suicide and drug addiction. Yet, grief remains under-appreciated as a critical issue within mental health, one that can have significant impacts on individuals and society. Our mission is to build awareness and scalable eco-systems of support for grieving children.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights!