Camps help children with storm stress

7/18/2006

By John Gordon
United Methodist News Service

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina is indelibly etched into the memories of children living along the Gulf Coast. 

"I was scared, because you could hear the wind making those sounds," recalled Jenifer Truong, 12, of Pass Christian, who worried whether she "would see everyone again." 

Truong is one of about 250 children attending Camp Noah this summer at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Pass Christian and First United Methodist Church in nearby Gulfport. Local churches and the United Methodist Committee on Relief are providing facilities and funding for the week-long day camps. 

"They are predicting over 100,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder from the children who've been affected," said Melanie Davis, national co-director for Camp Noah. The program was developed by Lutheran Social Services. 

"We're seeing that people are under stress for a longer period of time and recovery is taking longer in so many areas," said Davis. "And so, that just complicates all this for families and particularly for children."

Ella Dedeaux, a Mount Zion member and site coordinator for the camps in Pass Christian, said children in the area still show the symptoms of storm stress. Many were reluctant to discuss their fears before coming to Camp Noah. 

"There's a lot of mental health outlets for adults," she added. "But there was none that was available for children."  

The camps for elementary-aged children bring in trained teachers and counselors to encourage children to talk about their experiences and fears. The program is based on the biblical story of Noah. Older children serve as youth leaders.  

Kids hear from meteorologists who talk about what causes storms and Red Cross volunteers discuss evacuations. They also make disaster-preparedness kits to take home. Fun activities range from skits and singing to arts and crafts. 

"(We've seen) children who were regressing into things like sucking their thumb, bedwetting, nightmares, lots of fears about what's going to happen now," explained Sarah Shelly, site coordinator for the camp at First United Methodist Church in Gulfport. 

"That's a lot of what they've talked about this week, based on the story of Noah being prepared, evacuating, having to live in the ark, the cramped space, and coming back and what he did in the future," she said. 

Camp participants also prepare personal journals. They are encouraged to write down bad things that happened - such as having to attend a different school or losing their belongings - as well as good things, such as making new friends or getting new clothes. 

"It hurts. And sooner or later, it's all going to come out, which it did," said Marissa Ash, 16, a Mount Zion member and youth leader at the camp. Her home survived the storm. But, Ash went to Illinois to stay with relatives because her school was damaged. 

"They can come here (to Camp Noah), have fun, worship God, and still talk about what hurts them real deep down inside," she noted. 

While many families are still rebuilding, children are concerned about the new hurricane season - and what might happen next. 

"We're rebuilding our house, so I'm kind of afraid that another storm will come and we'll have to go through everything all over again," said Kiana Welch, 13. 

Most of the 65 Camp Noah sessions planned this summer are being held along the Gulf Coast because of the widespread devastation from Katrina. But, sessions have been held from Florida to flooded areas of the Upper Midwest since the program began in 1997. 

"The United Methodist Church has been a wonderful partner," said Davis, the national co-director. "They have a real heart of ministry to the children." 

Blaze Lopez, a 10-year-old Gulfport resident, said talking about her experiences helped ease her mind-though she still has concerns about the future. 

"It makes me feel a lot better," said Lopez. "(But I'm) still kind of worried that there might be another one like Katrina." 

For more information, visit  www.campnoah.org, the Camp Noah Web site.