1 in 13 children in the U.S. will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the age of 18. Unfortunately, Lynne Hughes was no exception.
Lynne lost both of her parents by the age of 12 and after combining her love of summer camp with the unmet societal need for resources to support youth after losing loved ones to death–Comfort Zone Camp was born in 1998.
“I’ll always remember the first camp I attended after both of my parents passed,” said Lynne Hughes, founder and CEO of Comfort Zone Camp. “Camp was a magical place. No one knew about my losses [at camp]. I got to be a kid again.”
This played a large part in Lynne’s desire to create a safe space for children to escape their everyday routines, experience traditional camp fun, while also addressing real-life grief head-on. CZC is the first-ever, national 501(c)3 bereavement camp for children ages 7-17 who have lost a loved one. It is said that a weekend at Comfort Zone Camp equates to six months of traditional therapy. As a life-grief expert, Lynne believes its resources are more crucial today with traumatic events like school shootings, the COVID-19 pandemic, and social injustice. But while the nonprofit has supported over thousands of grieving families since its first camp in 1998–there were some challenges along the way.
“We were one of the very first childhood bereavement camps, so we didn’t have a roadmap or blueprint to follow,” said Lynne. “We had to blaze our own trail. To be successful, I needed to make the case that this was something important. I needed to convince caretakers to sign up their children, volunteers to give up a weekend of their life and donors that we existed. Our camp was offered at no cost to all participants so fundraising was tantamount.”
Not having a roadmap was not the only test.
Over 30% of nonprofits fizzle out within the first 10 years according to the National Center on Charitable Statistics and many Foundations have requirements for grant funding, requiring nonprofits to operate for a minimum five years before being considered. CZC started out of Lynne’s dining room, where everything ran on a shoestring budget and as a nonprofit–the rates of succeeding were working against her.
But this didn’t stop her. For Lynne–failure was never an option. She spoke to anyone who would listen, built relationships with local media, connected with school counselors, therapists and realized she wasn’t alone. Others lost their parents too.
Then 9/11 happened. The need for building resilience and coping skills swept the nation.
“Our organization was only three-years old at the time. We had to figure out how to take our program ‘on the road’ to support campers and find volunteers, donors and expand across the U.S.,” said Lynne. “9/11 was a tragedy but born from it was hope and healing. I like to believe that anything can rise from adversity if given the right tools and skills.”
Today, CZC has hosted 23,000 campers from nearly all 50 states, Canada and the United Kingdom. All services are free of charge due to generous donations from individuals, corporations, civic organizations and foundation grants. Families can access not only in-person camps, but at-home virtual camps, family programs, virtual support groups, workshops and grief coaching. Most importantly, people are addressing their grief and building resiliency skills.
Lynne’s personal mantra is, “there is always something good from something bad.” She’s committed to creating a society that’s engaged in meeting the needs of grieving children. She wants kids to feel empowered to heal, grow and lead fulfilling lives.
Her advice for fellow entrepreneurs is to remain passionate and persistent. Connect and build relationships because people who say ‘no’ today, could say ‘yes’ tomorrow. Establish a growth strategy, activate guerilla marketing, and cultivate strong leaders–you can’t be everywhere at once. Good swag doesn’t hurt either!
And above all else–Lynne suggests embracing wherever you are in your journey. Enjoy the ride.
About Lynne Hughes
Lynne Hughes is the founder and CEO of Comfort Zone Camp, the first-ever, national bereavement camp for grieving children. Hughes was recently recognized by Mars M&M as a Top 20 Trailblazing Woman of the Year where her story was shared in Times Square. She’s also a 2019 honoree of the Richmond Times Dispatch Person of Year, was a 2019 Hometown Hero for Allen & Allen and YWCA Outstanding Woman of the Year in April 2006.
Hughes was also honored as one of Redbook’s Mothers and Shakers 2002, awarded to 12 women (including Laura Bush) who have helped to improve the quality of life in the U.S. Her book, “You Are Not Alone: Teens Talk about Life after the Loss of a Loved One,” was published in 2005 by Scholastic Press. She’s spoken at more than 50 engagements across the U.S. and has been featured in People Magazine, Parents Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo! News, USA Today and NPR. She’s appeared on The Today Show, CBS Nightly News, CNN, C-SPAN, INSIDER and more.