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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Jojo (right) with her mom and sister on Easter in 2017. Photo courtesy of Sonya Spielberg

Then, together, they came up with an idea. Spielberg, 51, had been thinking about a memorial scholarship or foundation for Jojo, but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Van Egbert, a father of two, had run camps for people bound together by grief: kids whose parents had died suddenly, parents who lost infants, chronically ill children. He’d seen how being outdoors could help the healing process.

They decided to organize a camp in Jojo’s honor. “Camp Jojo” would help youths struggling with mental health challenges, either their own or those of someone close to them. It would be a place to work out anger, anxiety and frustration through nature therapy. “I kind of felt this electrical current in my body,” Spielberg says, “because [the camp was] what I had been searching for.”

Their plan included self-adventure—having campers push through physical boundaries and mental discomfort. There would be counseling sessions, and lessons taught through a program called safeTALK, which Carina chose for the camp. TALK stands for four elements of the curriculum: Tell someone about changes in a friend or relative. Ask the person directly if they are OK or have considered harming themselves. Listen without judgment. Keep someone safe by connecting them to expert help. Participants would learn how to recognize signs of suicidal thoughts and help people struggling with them.

With the help of volunteers, Spielberg and Van Egbert created a nonprofit, built a website and started raising money. When Jojo’s close friend Justin Chen and others shared the GoFundMe link with Whitman friends on Snapchat, it brought in more than $1,500 in just a few days. Months later, the GoFundMe account had collected more than $15,000.

Camp Jojo was planned for July 2019 at Cal-Wood, a 1,200-acre outdoor classroom northwest of Boulder, Colorado. Participants didn’t have to pay, but parents could make donations. It would be a cellphone-free six days of hiking, rock climbing, fishing, mountain biking, whitewater rafting and absorbing the natural world. The kinds of things Jojo loved to do.

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Sonya Spielberg holds a photo of Jojo. Photo by Lisa Helfert

Spielberg remembers a family game of pingpong when Jojo was about 9 years old. Wound up and giddy, Jojo launched herself onto the pingpong table—which collapsed around her, scaring everyone else but making her laugh harder.

In an essay Jojo wrote for a sophomore English class at Whitman, she talked about a scar on the bridge of her nose that she’d gotten during a fake fight with her sister. It happened when she was in second grade and Carina was in fifth. The girls were bored and tired while waiting for their mom at a country club. Carina pretended to slap Jojo in the face but actually smacked her sister’s hand. Jojo dramatically whipped her head around, accidentally cracking it on a chair, making her woozy and drawing blood.

“This mark is a permanent part of me, a physical expression of my true inner hellion,” she wrote in the essay entitled Scar Memoir. “Every bone in my body aches to cause trouble, to make a decision with no fear of consequences. Some days I choose to ignore those impulses. Other days, I act on them without thinking twice.”

While Jojo could be a devilish prankster, hiding a mannequin-like head around the house for her family to discover, she was also caring and thoughtful. She basked in big birthday surprises; for her mother’s 49th, she put up streamers and made chocolate-covered strawberries and pancakes for breakfast. She once painted a sun scene that included the lyrics to “You Are My Sunshine,” which her mother used to sing to her.

Kate Snedeker met Jojo in eighth grade at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda after Jojo’s family moved back to Bethesda. They had an instant connection and liked watching sunsets together. “I could tell anything to her and there would be no judgment, and she would be there to help,” Kate, now 18, says.