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Love In the Air at ‘Camp Widow’

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

Her fiancé, 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.

Valentine’s Day, she said, was especially painful. Reminders to buy roses, chocolates or jewelry for that special someone were everywhere. And for those whose spouses and partners have died, all that commercialized romance just plain hurts.

“I remember those first Valentine’s Day's 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,” said Villanueva Tepper, who is an advocate for 9/11 families and is active in Project Rebirth, which creates programs that facilitate healing, foster hope and build resilience.

Villanueva Tepper was also featured in Project Rebirth's documentary film "Rebirth," which for 10 years, followed individuals impacted in some way by 9/11.

Last week, the Miami resident helped lead a group of 150 who gathered to celebrate their lost loved ones at a downtown Tampa hotel. Dubbed Camp Widow, the Soaring Spirits International event is designed to be uplifting and social. The weekend has roundtable discussions and time for quiet reflection. But there’s also a lot of laughter, a 5K race, even a Saturday night dance.

Soaring Spirits Internationalfounder 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,” said Neff Hernandez, whose late husband was killed during a bike ride near their California home nine years ago.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Credit Daylina Miller / WUSF News
The Florida Channel
Michele Neff Hernandez, executive director for Soaring Spirits International, says every widow has lived a great love story because they've loved their significant other until their very last breath.

“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?"

Soaring Spirits and Camp Widow is not a dating service, nor offering professional counseling, said Maria Teresa of Lutz, a co-leader of the Tampa Bay area Soaring Spirits support group.

“The first impression that people think is that we join a dating group,” Teresa said. “And the first thing that we say is that, no, it’s not a dating group, it’s a connection group.”

Hernandez said the group provides additional tools to help widowed men and women cope, and a group of people who can relate.

“This organization was created by widowed people, for widowed people. This event is also by widowed people, for widowed people,” she said. “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. 

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Credit Daylina Miller / WUSF News
The Florida Channel
Fiesta Jarvis, from Lakeland, heads up the Tampa Bay chapter of Soaring Spirits, along with Lutz resident Maria Teresa.

“We don’t talk about how sad we are, we laugh a lot actually,” Jarvis said.

Online is usually where a lot of widowed people first find kindred, widowed souls, she said.

“We post things on the group, some from the national site and some just things that we see. It helps you to know that you are not alone. You can kind of see it, and then once you join the group you will connect with other people,” she said. “And a lot of our members, they get together on their own…They go to dinner together and things like that so you have that gap outside of the two meetings that we do a month.”

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,’’ she said. “There are other people who have the same feelings that I am going through.”

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. 

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Courtesy Soaring Spirits International
The Florida Channel
Members of Soaring Spirits International went skydiving last summer.

“And when you go with other widowed people, we kind of understand each other,” she said. “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’ the death of their spouse, regardless of how long ago it happened. 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,” Hernandez said.

“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.”

For Hernandez and others, that may include discovering a new love. That's what happened to Tanya Villanueva Tepper. 

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Credit Daylina Miller / WUSF News
The Florida Channel
Tanya Villanueva Tepper lost her fiance Sergio , a firefighter, in the 9/11 attack and has since talked about widowhood in a documentary called "Rebirth."

“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,” she said.

The men and women who are widows know that on this Valentine’s Day, there's plenty of room to love them all, Villanueva Tepper said.

“I think a lot of widows go into the journey thinking, ‘I’m going to forget, I’m going have to let go of my love for him in order to have a new life,’ But it’s not true. You add,” she said.  “You add to the love and you always carry it with you.”

Health News Florida reporter Daylina Miller contributed to this report. She and Mary Shedden are part of WUSFin Tampa. Health News Florida receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Mary Shedden is news director at WUSF.