BECKER • • It’s a quiet time of year for Abby Acres Christian Camp in Becker.
“Root Beer” and the other thickly coated horses of the camp lazily search their 20 hectare pasture for branches of green life. A zip line stretched across a small pond shimmers in the winter sun, and “Krystn’s Cottage” – the camp’s sleeping quarters – is in its wooded corner of the property.
David and Hope Lee have lived on the property since 2002. David is a retired Air Force fighter pilot and a Desert Storm veteran. Today he is a flight simulation instructor at Columbus Air Force Base.
The Lees opened Abby Acres in 2015 after an unthinkable event. In July 2009, their 11-year-old daughter Abby died of meningitis.
Hope explained the circumstances of the tragedy:
“Our house burned down in May ’09, so we lived on base in Columbus,” she said. “Abby and her two older brothers were here all day riding horses. (Root Beer was Abby’s horse.) Abby came in complaining of a headache. She was fine until Wednesday when she started throwing up. “
Hope said things quickly escalated from there.
“She woke up Thursday morning with a fit,” she said. “We had to fight to get them into the car. Her fever skyrocketed and she didn’t know us. They flew her to LeBonheur and that night they told us to contact family members. She died on July 11th, just a few months after her 11th birthday. “
David Lee said they founded Abby Acres to honor their daughter’s memory and the generosity of the community.
“We started camp because we wanted her death to make a difference,” Lee said. “The community set up a memorial fund and raised about $ 40,000 in one year. We started praying what to do with the money and we decided to build the camp. “
Now Abby Acres, which can accommodate up to 24 campers, offers several summer camps for children throughout the year as well as workshops and retreats for adults. Hope said the annual survivor’s retreat, which she started four years ago, is always well attended.
“Only in Monroe County, within 30 miles of this place, can I give you 20 names of people who have lost children,” she said. “I felt like God was saying, ‘You have to reach her. ‘We have people from Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado – everywhere. It was such a blessing. “
Hope said her sense of loss is still strong over time and with her belief in supporting her.
“When someone loses a child and tells you they’re over it, they aren’t,” she said. “It’s been 11 years for us and it’s still like it was yesterday. You can’t get over it and you can’t get through. You go through all of these emotions and then cycle again. “
While the Lees were grateful for the encouragement they received from family and friends after Abby’s death, Hope said that not all of the comments she heard were equally helpful.
“You have some people who say the stupidest things,” she said. “Like ‘God needed another flower in his garden.’ When I hear something like that, I think, “Should I hit you now or do you have something else to say?”
David said that while it can feel uncomfortable at first, it helps when other people share memories of their daughter with you.
“Having others talk about your child helps keep the child’s memory alive,” he said. “It’s not negative; It’s like therapy. Don’t talk about the loss itself, just talk about good memories. It’s easier than we think. Just grab it, even if you stumble upon it. “
Hope said that while she never blamed God for Abby’s death, she is angry at times.
“You get angry,” she said. “Children shouldn’t die before their parents. I am still having problems with this. “
David said that for those struggling with the loss of a child, it is important to honor your feelings and intuitions.
“Whatever you think you should do, just do it, as long as it’s not obviously self-destructive,” he said. “If you have to go somewhere, just get in the car if that helps. If helping someone else helps you, just do it. It’s therapeutic. “