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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Spielberg (right) with her friend Lynne DeSarbo after an emotional closing ceremony. Photo courtesy of Sonya Spielberg

Everyone had picked a person or people motivating them to hike. “You could only see or hear your heartbeat and the thoughts in your head,” says Grace Maxwell, 24, a counselor at Camp Jojo.

Jojo’s friend Lily chose “people who tried to stop me from summiting my mountains.” Whenever she doubted she would complete the hot uphill trek she reminded herself that she could, and she did. At the top of the mountain, hikers broke their silence, revealing their pre-hike selections for motivation and the inspirational word they’d chosen in advance, such as power, resilience or love. There was laughing, crying and screaming. They threw powdered paint into the air. “There’s this wonderful swirl of really primal emotions happening at the same time,” Van Egbert explains.

Rock climbing on Thursday was a breakthrough for Maxwell, who swore she’d never do it. She waited until after everyone else had climbed and most people weren’t paying attention. Then she tried. She felt stuck, with nowhere to put a hand or a foot, and then Van Egbert, standing on a ridge above her, noticed her holding on, shaking and breathing hard. He coached her; she accepted it. “That moment signified a huge change for me,” she says. “Every day, there is a cliff that we have to climb. …If you don’t let people guide you, then you’re on your own.” She thought about a relative’s attempts at suicide. “In her climb,” she says, “what if I was there to help her navigate?”

Spielberg recalls many meaningful moments at the camp, from an incredible lightning storm that seemed to symbolize life and its struggles, to the revelation of intimate and honest feelings. The evolution of one camper from pained, angry and walled off to expressive and connected to the group was “the most miraculous thing I had ever witnessed,” she says.

Lynne DeSarbo, a close friend of Spielberg’s from Bethesda, was one of several adults who traveled to Colorado to help run the camp and offer support. DeSarbo worked as an attorney for the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., and has experience understanding trauma. She says she found the teens at Camp Jojo remarkably forthcoming and vulnerable after only a short time. Spielberg’s sister, Freya, a family medicine physician, was also on hand to help with counseling.

Everyone went through Camp Jojo at their own pace. At the start, Jojo’s friend Kate didn’t share much, but after two or three days she started to feel comfortable. “At Camp Jojo, I opened up more to people that I had known for three days than to my therapist,” she says. “They actually, truly, had gone through the same things that I did.”

Based on the good that came out of the first year of Camp Jojo, Spielberg hopes to expand it this summer and offer two or three one-week sessions in Colorado. She eventually wants to bring the camp to Texas and to the D.C. area.

Long after their time in Colorado, many of the Camp Jojo participants are staying connected through a Snapchat group. They check in with each other often, they say, especially on the hard days, treating “How are you?” as a real inquiry, worth a frank answer and not small talk.

Besides the ashes Van Egbert spread in Colorado, Jojo’s ashes grace other places. Her mother and sister traveled to Thailand at Christmastime in 2018. “So we went on a kayak trip,” Spielberg says. “[Jojo’s] in the Gulf of Thailand because I knew she would love it. It was so beautiful.

“And then she is in D.C. Well, Virginia. There’s a bench where my [late] dad is. Some of her ashes are there. …A memorial bench, so there’s urns. And she’s there. And she’s in Austin. There’s a memorial stone for her in Austin at the school she loved. It’s a garden.

“And then she’s in my closet, quite frankly. Because I’m thinking about where else she might like to be.”

Andrew Schotz is the managing editor of Bethesda Beat.