WHENEVER A CHILD dies, the unlived life he or she leaves behind is always with you. Jerry and Michele Metcalf have found that to be so ever since their teenage daughter passed away in 2000 of cancer. Erin would have been 24 years old this year and would have graduated by now from UCLA. Given the health problems she had to overcome, she had hoped to help other young people who found themselves faced with similar circumstances. The Metcalfs agree she would have pursued a career in pediatric cancer care, that she would have had children of her own, and would have done who knows what else one day. All of it is so very sad, never more so than when Michele happens to be driving somewhere and hears the lyrics of "Who You'd Be Today,'' by Kenny Chesney:
"Like a story that had just begun. The death tore the pages all away."
But what Michele and her husband have come to understand is this: A life need not be long to be significant. Though Erin was just 17 when cancer claimed her, she accomplished more in those few years than some do in 70. Michele told her that in one of their quiet bedside chats. In one of them toward the very end, she asked Erin how she wanted to be remembered. And Erin told her: Remember me by helping other kids. She had seen them on her hospital floor, 2-year-olds steeped in the ordeal of chemotherapy, and the inequity of it always disturbed Erin. She would say that it was just not fair that they had to endure that at such a young age. And when Michele would say it was not fair that she had to endure it either, Erin would reply: "I had a chance to go to school and have friends." Michele could not help but be struck by how uncommonly wise her young daughter had become.
It was during her deadly illness that Erin became acquainted with Jamie and Karen Moyer, who would play such a vital role in answering her call to help other children. The Moyers had met her while Jamie pitched for the hometown Seattle Mariners. Erin had come to spring training in 1998 as part of the "Make A Wish" program; Erin had been a fine softball player. The Moyers had dinner with her there and remained in contact in the 2 years that followed, during which her condition progressively deteriorated. When the end came on June 16, 2000, the Moyers said they wanted to do something in her memory. Says Karen: "We were just so inspired by her."
So the Moyers came up with the idea of starting Camp Erin, a place where children between the ages of 6 and 17 can go for a weekend in the summer to grieve the loss of a loved one. Under the umbrella of The Moyer Foundation - which Karen describes as a "broad mission" to help children in distress - there are currently eight Camp Erins in six states, and plans are under way to expand to 30 locations within 3 years. With the help of Wissahickon Hospice, a part of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Camp Erin-Philadelphia is scheduled to be held Aug. 17-19 at the Diamond Ridge Camp in Bucks County. Sixty or so children are expected to attend.
"Are we going to change the world?" asks Jamie. "No. But we can try to change some lives."
A few days into the season, Jamie Moyer is sitting in a lounge outside the Phillies clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. It is an hour or so before game time, and as his teammates come and go, Moyer describes an event that occurs during each Camp Erin weekend, which includes the usual camp activities in addition to ones aimed at giving expression to grief. "On their second day at camp, they assembled down by a lake," says Moyer. "And they each have a luminary . . . "
At this point his voice cracks and he pauses. "And attached to them is the identity of their loved one who has passed away. The luminaries were then placed on a raft, which was then pushed off onto the water."
He pauses again and adds: "All of this takes place once the sun goes down, so what you see are dozens of candles lighting up the darkness. And the kids are standing by the shore and some of them are crying. But it became a way for them to finally let go."
Given the prevailing public image of athletes today as self-centered creatures of excess, it is more than refreshing to come across a player as giving of himself as Moyer. Since the inception of The Moyer Foundation in July 2002, he and Karen have funneled more than $9 million into some 100 organizations to provide support for children "in time of profound physical, emotional or financial distress." Initially, inspiration for this philanthropic initiative flowered out of an encounter Jamie had in 1993 with Gregory Chaya, a 2-year-old who was waiting for a bone-marrow transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Moyer was then with the Orioles and in the process of trying to rejuvenate his up-and-down career. He and Gregory formed what Moyer called a "spiritual bond," which led the Moyers to establish The Gregory Fund at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Gregory is now 16.
"To see that young boy lying in bed and battle the way he did prompted me to ask myself: 'How selfish am I?' " says Moyer, who grew up in Souderton, and pitched at Saint Joseph's University. "I came to understand that what I have is a blessing. So doing this helps keep the job in perspective. I understand that by being an athlete I am up on a pedestal and that I can use that to create awareness. Our aim is to stand in front of this [foundation] and speak from the heart."
Given the busy schedule Moyer has during the season, a large portion of the workload is shouldered by his inexhaustible wife, who has assembled a staff in Seattle to oversee the foundation. The daughter of former Notre Dame basketball coach Digger Phelps, Karen had been a sports reporter for WGN and became acquainted with Jamie when he pitched for the Cubs from 1986 to 1988. They have six children. How she squeezes in her philanthropic work into a 24-hour day is hard to grasp, but friends say she is a woman of high energy and deep compassion. Indicative of the latter was her view of the needy she found outside her apartment on an initial walk through Philadelphia.
"I get so emotional when it comes to poverty," she says, as she sips a cup of coffee at a Center City Starbucks. "Things happen to people every day that you can forget if you are living in some high rise or are off in the suburbs. But if you look you can see it; there are children in some form of distress wherever you look. As I have always said, all of us has the talent and treasure to help this become a better world, even if you are just some kiddo running a lemonade stand."
The Metcalfs agree that Karen has a unique skill when it comes to communicating with grieving children. "Karen gets down to their level," says Michele. "And she connects with them." Where that ability comes from can be found perhaps in her ancestry. Her paternal grandfather was an undertaker in New York, and it left an impression on her. "I remember being 5 years old and wondering: 'Where are they going with that long car?' " It would be sometime later that she would realize they were going to pick up bodies, and that both her grandparents were called upon continually to console the grieving. Interestingly, that innate ability was passed down to their son Digger, who fully planned to become a funeral director until he found himself sidetracked by coaching basketball.
"I have been with Dad at funerals, and he is very graceful and delicate," says Karen. "He probably saw that in his parents."
Digger echoes that: "My parents had a sense of caring for people in crisis. And that has been passed down from generation to generation. I had it and Karen also carried on with it. I call her the Mother Teresa of our family."
Working with the children at Camp Erin has been an eye-opening experience for the Moyers. Karen says, "The kiddos pull at your heart." While they come from varied backgrounds economically and ethnically, all of them share the common bond of having had to deal with the catastrophic loss of a loved one. Some have had a parent commit suicide. Others have had siblings die in a car crash. Invariably, all have found themselves shrouded in perpetual grief, unable to vent the deep anger and/or sadness that can leave them in varying states of depression. Karen says studies show that one in 20 children before the age of 18 will experience the death of a parent. "And I happen to think it is even worse than that, given the fact that our country is at war," says Karen, who adds that "these kids can find themselves in trouble later unless they deal with their loss in a constructive way."
Examples of how Camp Erin ameliorated the problems of the children who have attended are not hard to find. Ten-year-old Dane Gainey was just 3 1/2 when his father committed suicide. His mother, Lisa, said he "began to grieve more as he began to understand more," and at age 8 slipped into a depression with the passing of his grandmother and great-grandmother. Dane told Lisa: "Mom, all I ever feel like doing is crying." Dane attended Camp Erin in Seattle and underwent a perceptible change, in part due to the fact that he discovered he was not the only person his age who had lost a loved one. He also found "the Moyers to be really nice" and even picked up some baseball tips from Jamie, with whom he visited at Citizens Bank Park on a trip to Philadelphia in early April.
"What you find at Camp Erin is that you are not alone," says Dane. "And I learned how to take the anger out on a pillow instead of someone else."
Lisa could not be more pleased. "I have found him to be less afraid to share his feelings," she says. "When there is a significant date, he wants to do something to remember his loved ones. He knows that he is still going to experience loss in his life, but hopefully this has given him tools to deal with it."
Karl Leist found the same positive change come over his children, Tristana (10) and Matthew (13). When his wife, Victoria, died in July 2003, Leist said it hit both kids hard but especially Matthew. "He questioned why he should even get out of bed in the morning," says Leist. "There was no life in him. He was insolated, alone in a lot of ways." But Leist says that Camp Erin "transformed my family," that his children not only came away from it in better spirits but motivated to help other children. Leist says in addition to "the usual singing and stuff you get at camp," the Moyers had assembled a group of highly skilled counselors to work with the children.
"And I think what others have said is true," he says. "The kids do come in contact with others who have experienced the same kind of devastating loss. And that is a big help."
The Leist children were especially moved by what happened at the remembrance ceremony. They each placed their Styrofoam luminary upon the still lake and dissolved into tears as they sailed away. "But when we woke up the next day, a counselor told us our two 'boats' were side by side," says Tristana. "Of all the others that were out there, ours ended up together. It was pretty neat."
But Matthew says it seemed to him to be more than that. "I looked at it as a sign from Mom," he says. "That it was a sign that we would be fine if we stayed together." He and his sister are now earning top grades in school and are on the swim team. And they will be forever thankful to the Moyers, of whom Matthew says: "They have used their wealth and position to help other people. And they are lighting up the darkness."
"Would you see the world?
Would you chase your dream?
Settle down with a family?
I wonder what you would name your babies?"
Whenever Michele Metcalf hears that Kenny Chesney song, her immediate impulse is to say: "Turn it off!" But just as quickly, there will be an impulse to instead say: "No! Leave it on." Whatever anguish that song conjures up, Michele says: "I have to be strong. Erin would have wanted that."
Michele and Jerry are touring the grounds of Diamond Ridge Camp in early April as she remembers that. There is a sharp chill in the air, far unlike the way it will be when the campers assemble there in August. Jerry speaks glowingly of the Moyers, who they say have been truly blessed. "Really good people," he says. "Good in the sense of caring for other people and showing it." Jerry says that when Erin passed, Jamie pitched a game for the Mariners in her honor.