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Felix Adamo / The Californian

And they're off! After a short meeting, kids at the Optimal Hospice Foundation 19th Annual Kids Camp head for the water at Gergen Ranch.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Teresa Ornelas, right, struggles to keep her balance on the water obstacle course at the Optimal Hospice Foundation Kids Camp.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

"The Blob" is almost everyone's favorite at the Kid's Camp.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

The line is long but the wait to jump onto "The Blob" is well worth it. The Optimal Hospice Foundation Kids Camp is now in its 19th year.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Activities director Scott Haner slips a life vest on 9-year-old Jeremie Riley. If you're not a strong swimmer then you need a life jacket for the water activities at the Kids Camp.

It's afternoon at Kids Camp, and that means it's time for the lake.

Some kids jump off the dock screaming "cannon ball." Others run around a floating obstacle corse. Still others shoot hoops from the water.

One thing none of them are doing: showing obvious signs of grief.

All 28 children had close relatives who have died in the past year or so. That's the point of the Kids Camp: to help children through the grief process.

"There's no difference between them and other kids going to camp," said Scott Haner, activity director. "You're kids, and you need to be kids. It doesn't matter what else is going on."

Optimal Hospice Foundation is hosting its 19th annual Kids Camp this week at Gergen Ranch in northeast Bakersfield. The free camp lasts three days and is open to 8- to 18-year-olds who have lost a close relative within the past couple of years.

The foundation is the nonprofit branch of Optimal Hospice Care that seeks to ensure service for all families regardless of ability to pay.

In addition to traditional summer camp activities like swimming and hiking, the camp provides bereavement counselors and time for the children to talk to each other about their losses.

Teresa Ornelas, 12, said she and other girls in her bunk sat in a circle one night before bedtime and -- without the encouragement of the adult counselors -- talked about who each of them had lost. Ornelas' grandmother and two brothers have died recently.

"It helps," she said.

But while moments like that help, it's the daytime activities Ornelas said have made camp a great experience. Canoeing was her favorite, even though she got bumped in the head by the canoe when she jumped out to swim.

Likewise, Hayden Thomas, 8, has loved the swimming. The camp has helped Thomas cope with the death of his grandmother from cancer.

"I was sad, so I went here," he said.

He's felt encouragement from his fellow campers, especially when he had difficulty climbing the rock wall. And he enjoys toying with the emus that roam a fenced-off portion of the grounds, even though he's not supposed to.

"I stuck my hand in, and the emu went chasing it, and I pulled it out, and it almost bit me, and I went 'Ahhh,'" Thomas rattled off.

All the actual grief counseling the children receive is optional. Cindy Stone, the on-site children's grief counselor, said usually only one or two kids approach her each session to talk specifically about their feelings.

But the camp helps them anyway by providing a safe and fun environment, she said.

"People express grief in many ways," Stone said. "Some kids need to play it out, some kids need to talk it out. There's just the whole scale here."