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Camp Anchor let parents tell campers about crash

Reeling from the tragedy of losing three counselors in a fatal car crash, the leaders of the special-needs Camp Anchor had to decide what to say to the nearly 700 handicapped campers.

Anchor's volunteers and staff had little time to deliberate: the one-car crash on the Meadowbrook State Parkway that killed three counselors and sent two others to the hospital happened Thursday at about 8:50 a.m.; the camp day was set to begin within an hour, and parents and yellow buses were dropping off a steady stream of campers, who range in age from 5 to 65.

After meeting with police and grief counselors, the staff chose to keep the news from campers - and let families deliver the news later on "if they felt it was appropriate," said Joe Lentini, head of the town-owned, Lido Beach-based camp.

Some campers can't comprehend death. Some with autism can become obsessed with tragedy and "get upset when they don't get an answer they understand," Lentini said.

"They keep saying, 'This person is dead! This person is dead!' " Lentini said. "And we just focus on the positive things about the person: 'We love them. Now they're in a better place. They've gone to heaven. We'll always have a memory of them.' "

Some with autism can replay the calamity in their minds for years to come, Lentini said.

"They don't get that concept of the finality of death: These people are never going to come back. They don't get that concept. They think of it as a temporary thing," Lentini said.

All of this compounded an already difficult situation for the counselors and volunteers - some as young as 14 - who were themselves distraught, he said.

"They were already upset themselves," Lentini said, adding that "if they couldn't handle it," they were offered a break.

A disc jockey playing music awaited campers Friday, and Lentini's staff ran a program that included home economics, dance and music.

"Lift up everyone's spirits a little bit," he said.

Martha Kovel of North Bellmore, who dropped off her son at camp Thursday and saw "the entire camp crying," said that her son, 17, who has Asperger's syndrome and bipolar disorder, later read about the crash on the Internet but didn't show emotion because of his disorder.

"Part of his disability is that he wouldn't discuss it," Kovel said.

Her son, whose disability includes a communication disorder, has been attending Anchor's programs since he was about 6, she said.

"He himself is not visibly upset," she said last week.

The day of the crash, Anchor's leadership sent campers home with a letter to parents telling them about the crash. The camp suggested that families keep home campers who might have a particularly difficult time coping.

And Friday, the day after the crash, roughly half of Camp Anchor's campers stayed home - including Martha Kovel's son.

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