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Love In the Air at ‘Camp Widow’

A memory wall at Soaring Spirits International's "Camp Widow" showcases special moments with deceased spouses. Photo: Daylina Miller, WUSF News
A memory wall at Soaring Spirits International's "Camp Widow" showcases special moments with deceased spouses. Photo: Daylina Miller, WUSF News

Tanya Villanueva Tepper was thinking wedding plans -- not widowhood -- the morning of September 11, 2001.

Her fiance, a New York City firefighter, was among the thousands killed when the Twin Towers were attacked. She was forced to learn how to live every day without her Sergio.

“I remember those first Valentine’s Days without Sergio. There’s nothing that makes your loss more apparent, screaming in your face, than a day dedicated to love, and partnership, and marriage and you know...soulmates,” says Tepper.

The Miami resident helped lead a group of 150 who celebrated lost loved ones at a downtown Tampa hotel last week. The Soaring Spirits International event is designed to be uplifting. Camp Widow includes a lot of laughter, even a Saturday night dance.

Founder and Director Michele Neff Hernandez says the date of this 11th Camp Widow was intentional. “I feel like we have the Love Story. Right? When you love someone up until the very end of their life, that’s the love story. So when you have that, why is it that we’re not honoring that? Why are we not marking that for this day of love?"

She says Camp Widow is not a dating service, nor offering professional counseling. It provides tools, and a group of people who can relate. “This organization was created by widowed people, for widowed people. This event also for widowed people. by widowed people. Our credentials are the fact that our spouse or partner is dead. And what we build around that is just the opportunity for people to be in community.”

Fiesta Jarvis of Lakeland lost her husband four years ago after a long illness. She's one of the Tampa area group leaders, setting up get-togethers and running the Facebook page - a place where a lot of widowed people first find kindred souls.

“We post things on the group, some from the national site and some just things that we see, that helps you to know that you are not alone. And you can kinda see. Then once you join the group you will connect with other people," says Jarvis.

Joyce Sterner of Bradenton says that online community helped her survive after her husband died in 2011. She was still working full time and didn’t relate as well to retired members of her other support group.

“You go on and you read what people write about how they are feeling and a lot of the times when I read it, I said – ‘Oh Wow, I feel like that. I’m not the only person who feels like that. I’m not…crazy.’’ There are other people who have the same feelings that I am going through,” says Sterner.

For Sterner, that meant stepping outside a world that had focused for years on an ailing husband. Last year, her Camp Widow friends convinced her to try skydiving. “And when you go with other widowed people, we kind of understand each other. Other people who haven’t lost a spouse say they understand, but until you’ve been in it, you don’t.”

Hernandez says Camp Widow offers a safe place where people won't be told to get over a loss that happened years ago. Instead, it's a time to celebrate fond memories and move forward.

“And that’s what we tell people. It’s ok to just exist. But there is going to be a day when you’re ready to write a new chapter. And then you’re going to write another new chapter. And before you know it, you’re going to be 10 chapters down the road. And you’re going to look back at the chapter where you experienced the death of your person and you’re going to think about – no you’ll be able to SEE – the way your life was changed by that,” says Hernandez.

For Hernandez and others, that may include discovering a new love. That's what happened to Tanya Villanueva Tepper. “I always honor Sergio. I have a Facebook page for Sergio. I still have a very good relationship with his family, with our friends. He’s still very much a part of my life. I’m probably a little more careful though because I do have my husband, Ray, that Sergio doesn’t occupy my Valentine’s Day. My Valentine’s Day now is about Ray and my daughters.”

These widows know that on this Valentines Day, there's plenty of room to love them all.