Knox County bereavement camp leading by example in recovery from tragic fire

Among the first of 11 fire departments respond to the June 4 fire that destroyed "Because I Said I Would" camp in southern Knox County
Among the first of 11 fire departments respond to the June 4 fire that destroyed "Because I Said I Would" camp in southern Knox County

A nonprofit camp for families dealing with grief and family loss from murder, suicide and other tragedies is making progress on its own loss nine months after a fire destroyed its administration building.

The camp, "Because I Said I Would" in southern Knox County, about 40 minutes northeast of Columbus, has just begun to rebuild its main building, which was the operations and venue center for dozens of families when the June 4 fire tore through it.

The camp was preparing to host its first campers when the evening fire destroyed computers, equipment and months of preparation.

The cause is undetermined, but camp leaders noted an "electrical surge" in neighboring structures moments before the fire erupted in the 3,400-square-foot building.

"We believe that's what it was," said Alex Sheen, founder of the camp, who said that there were no signs of arson or foul play. The estimated loss was about $1.6 million.

Sheen, 38, an Olentangy High School and Ohio University graduate, conceived the nonprofit about 10 years ago after his father died of lung cancer. Part of his eulogy to his father was about not breaking promises, he said.

Promise cards, written symbols of dedication and commitment, would be given to someone who then returns them when the promise is fulfilled, he said. Almost 15 million cards have been distributed in more than 178 countries, Sheen said.

Alex Sheen, founder of Knox County camp "Because I said I would" works on plans to rebuild following a fire last summer.
Alex Sheen, founder of Knox County camp "Because I said I would" works on plans to rebuild following a fire last summer.

The 92-acre site continued to house families in five cabins untouched by the fire. But Sheen said that about a third of his staff resigned, along with three board members, unable or unwilling to persevere through unstable funding.

"The challenge of coming back is heavy," Sheen said. "When real challenge comes to someone's door, they've got to assess their level of commitment."

A lesson of resolve

Campers who have lost someone have a reprieve from their daily struggles. They can mingle with others and receive grief and resiliency training, Sheen said. A typical 2-night stay costs the camp about $1,500 per family, which is charged nothing.

Donations and insurance money are helping bridge the funding gaps.

And even though he faces his own challenges, Sheen insists he'll continue.

"I don't care what happens," he said. "We're not giving up on these people."

Etched colorfully from intense heat from a 2023 fire, the concrete slab will remain as a reminder of resiliency at the Knox County camp "Because I said I would."
Etched colorfully from intense heat from a 2023 fire, the concrete slab will remain as a reminder of resiliency at the Knox County camp "Because I said I would."

Deaths from opioids and other drugs have continued to climb along with suicide and car crashes, he said.

"The amount of loss is actually lowering life expectancy," he said.

The wife of a man who took his life eight months ago is an example of the need. She wrote in her camp application:

"There were no signs, he left no note, we have no idea why. I am the one who found him, and I am having a very hard time adjusting. I am not sure how to do all this without him and need help."

And another from a parent whose son died in a car crash: "He was just 16. We are a close family, and we are really struggling. We are trying to find the tools to move through our grief together. We have three younger children. A 13-year-old son, 10-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter."

The administration building's concrete slab, scarred by the fire's intense heat, is all that remains. Architects have suggested using it for a basketball or pickleball court.

Etched colorfully from intense heat from a 2023 fire, the concrete slab will remain as a reminder of resiliency at the Knox County camp "Because I said I would."
Etched colorfully from intense heat from a 2023 fire, the concrete slab will remain as a reminder of resiliency at the Knox County camp "Because I said I would."

Sheen said it will remain visible "as a reminder of our own resiliency and where we're going."

"The whole journey has been some form of 'holding it all together,' " he said.

Volunteers can learn more at camp.becauseisaidiwould.org/support/volunteer and donations made at becauseisaidiwould.org/donate.

Families dealing with bereavement can apply for a campership at camp.becauseisaidiwould.org/programs/bereavement.

dnarciso@dispatch.com

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Knox County bereavement camp aims to recover from tragic fire