March-April 2020 | Health

Camp Jojo

Less than two years after the death of Whitman student Jojo Greenberg, her mother found a special way to honor her—and help other teens affected by mental health struggles

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A group hike at Camp Jojo in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Sonya Spielberg

Jordana Greenberg bounded through 16 years of life. She rappelled down a waterfall in Costa Rica, toured Europe, camped in Colorado. She painted and taught yoga. At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, she joined an animal rights group and became a “Best Buddy” for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She studied Arabic and wanted to be a paratrooper. Or a travel blogger.

Everyone knew her as “Jojo,” a dynamo of energy, light and fun, with a deep, husky laugh. She was the kind of person who would bring home a classmate who needed help with a college essay and didn’t have family support. Or befriend a juice bar employee who felt out of place after moving to the area. But she was also a teenager weighted down by mental illness. She was being treated for symptoms of bipolar disorder, a condition marked by extreme highs and lows, and taking medication for depression. She’d struggled with alcohol addiction, spending time at a wilderness program in North Carolina, then a therapeutic boarding school to regain her footing.

Jojo’s dual existence—exuberant and vibrant, but privately struggling—ended with her death by suicide in Bethesda in November 2017. “I don’t know what was going on in her mind when she made the decision that she made,” her mother, Sonya Spielberg, says.

Now Spielberg and her older daughter, Carina, 21, are looking for ways to help end the stigma of mental illness.

Jojo, in her favorite space cat shirt, with her sister, Carina. Photo courtesy of Sonya Spielberg

“It’s so important to speak out,” Spielberg says, “because if [Jojo] had felt like she could discuss how she felt, like it was OK to be bipolar, like it was OK to discuss her pain and how scared she was, and talk about suicide—she wouldn’t talk about suicide. She wouldn’t.”

In June 2018, Spielberg and about 25 of Jojo’s friends and former camp counselors hiked Mount Royal near Frisco, Colorado, to honor the teen. Spielberg had already held two memorial services for her daughter—one in Austin, Texas, where the family spent several years when Jojo was younger, and one in Bethesda, where they lived when Jojo was born and returned later as she neared high school age. But she was looking for another way to celebrate Jojo’s life, somewhere outdoors. Spielberg used to bring Jojo and Carina to Mount Royal when they were kids, coaxing them to the top with gummy bears and other treats. The family had spent summers in Colorado, and Jojo went to the Keystone Science School, a camp west of Denver, for several years.

It was a difficult mile-long trek, Spielberg says, but the payoff was the grand 360-degree view at the top. The group shared memories, sang camp songs and held a ceremony for Jojo. Some wore superhero capes, tutus and sparkly clothes, appropriately goofy to match Jojo’s personality and style. She once bought an oversize shirt with images of flying cats, and to her mother’s surprise wore it to school with her pink Crocs.

Spielberg made sure Jojo’s favorite camp director, Joel Van Egbert, was on the memorial hike. He and Jojo understood each other; Van Egbert took her death personally. Away from the group, Spielberg approached him: Would he scatter some of Jojo’s ashes over the beautiful vista? “I don’t think I’ve ever felt more honored in my career,” he recalls.