On March 19, 1989 my life and the lives of my children changed suddenly and dramatically. It was on that day that my first husband, Alex Ringelheim, a 40-year-old vibrant father of three, died of a heart attack on his way to join his oldest daughter at a Sunday school service. I was left as a single parent of Jenna, age 8, Matt, age 5, and Kayla, age 3 months. Many of the hopes and dreams that we had for our children were shattered in an instant.
Warmth and an outpouring of support from family and friends surrounded me. Friends took turns staying with me over the first few weeks and sending meals for several months. My neighbor, who happened to be the director of a day camp where my son was enrolled, came over and told me that his tuition would be taken care of. The phone rang off the hook with people checking in on me. I had an internal sense of being held by the world, despite how difficult life had become.
As is true in nature, life went on for us, with time softening our sense of loss and grief. Fifteen years after that traumatic time, my grown children and I were about to embark on a new phase of our lives—my marriage to Steve Birnbaum. The loss of my first husband (and father of my children), the kindness and generosity of friends, family and many camp directors, as well as the positive impact of my children’s summer camp experiences, were the inspiration behind the founding of the Wildflower Camp Foundation.
Here is the letter that I wrote to family and friends, announcing the start of Wildflower Camp Foundation and requesting that wedding gifts be given in the form of contributions to start the Foundation.
am simply grateful that the girls can go to great camps
and have wonderful and largely care-free,
fun summers. Just as I did. As
all kids should. Thank you so much for helping
them be children."
"Thanks to the Foundation's assistance, my family
and I are looking forward to an active summer despite our modest
financial resources. Recovering from our recent loss, we enjoy good
health, happiness, and abundant blessings thanks in part to the support
of our friends and community."
April 20, 2004
Dear family and friends,
With my wedding to Steve coming up soon, I wanted to reach all of you early enough to save you from any tortured moments trying to think about what to get us for a wedding gift. Steve and I have decided that in lieu of gifts, if you feel so inclined, we would be happy to accept donations to a foundation that we are in the process of forming.
The Wildflower Camp Foundation has been a dream of mine for several years, inspired by the experiences of our family after the loss of my first husband. Steve has been very sensitive to my family’s history and it was his suggestion that this would be a perfect time to fund the foundation. My children have also been very supportive of the idea and are interested in participating on the board. We expect this to be a very meaningful family effort.
Many of you are well aware of what might have brought us to the decision to form this foundation. But for those of you who are not, let me fill you in a bit.
Despite the embracing support my family received after Alex’s death, the realities of the emotional recovery, the care of my children, and the financial responsibilities were still quite monumental. When the dust really began to settle, the realities of single parenthood posed numerous challenges. It became clear that the hopes and dreams that we had for our children would be very hard to accomplish on my own. However, I had a strong conviction that the loss of a parent was enough of a loss for my children to endure. I didn’t want them additionally to miss out on life opportunities and avenues for enrichment that would have been available to them had their father lived. Summer camp was one such experience that we had always valued.
Our strong interest in camp grew out of a childhood experience of Alex's. He had attended overnight camp every summer throughout his youth culminating in a teen cross-country trip with his camp friends. He had loved camp, a strikingly different environment than his home in NYC, and had spoken to me many times about his camp memories. He had clearly wanted to pass this tradition along to his children. Fortunately, several camp directors graciously extended themselves to make my children’s attendance a possibility.
My children’s participation in wonderful overnight camps provided an incredible healing opportunity for our entire family. Summer camp provided my children with a myriad of experiences that would be hard to capture at home – the mentoring of counselors, wonderful role models, the soothing qualities of nature and play, quality instruction in sports and the arts, and a place to “feel normal” without the constant reminder of their loss. These special times for the children also provided a welcome and much needed respite for me as a single parent. It gave me time to step off the often overwhelming pace of life and to restore myself.
Having been as fortunate as we have been, we would like to pass along the gift of summer camp to other families who have lost a parent. In doing so, we hope to provide a healing experience for children and parents who have undergone the trauma of loss and grief. I strongly believe that these early intervention efforts can have significant impact in helping families minimize the damage that this type of trauma can cause. Our hope is to provide several scholarships each summer to summer camps and other athletic and creative arts programs…
…We look forward to sharing our wedding weekend with you and are gratified in knowing that in addition to our happiness that we all will bring comfort and possibility to other families as well.