By Heidi Robinson
United Methodist News Service
PEARLINGTON — Young Skylar Ritchie talks about Hurricane Katrina as if it blew through town last night, instead of four years ago.
“The water came in my room,” the 10-year-old says. “My dad, he had to use the boat to get us out. We didn’t have a lot of fun for a long time.
“That’s why we look forward to seeing Miss Catherine.”
Catherine Ritch Guess may be familiar to readers of her books or fans of her music. But in Pearlington, a community almost destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, she is best known as the bringer of joy to a group of children denied many of childhood’s joys, like summer camp.
“Hey honey! Come on in!” calls Guess, as she welcomes a blonde 10-year-old girl into the cultural camp and carnival she has organized. This year’s event takes place at the Pearlington Recovery Center, a former elementary school.
“I love you Miss Catherine,” says the girl, wrapping her arms around the petite woman with the welcoming smile.
“I love you, too,” Guess replies.
A United Methodist diaconal minister, Guess has traveled from North Carolina to hold the summer camps every year since Katrina struck in August 2005. She and the volunteers with her — a group that includes United Methodists as well as members of the Lutheran church where she ministers — give the children a place for fun and learning, as well as a gentle affirmation of God’s love.
“We’ve worked with many of these children before,” Guess says. “The people here have seen so many volunteer workers who have been rebuilding their homes, but if you don’t rebuild the lives of the children, then why bother to rebuild the homes? I can’t do hammers and nails, but I can help rebuild children’s lives.”
‘You have to do something’
Guess’ commitment to the Gulf Coast area began when she visited the area to play a benefit concert shortly after Hurricane Katrina. One of her two sons accompanied her, and the destruction of homes, schools and normal life shocked him.
“He said, ‘Mom you have to do something,’” Guess says. “So we did. We started asking my readers and other folks to donate books. United Methodist churches in the Western North Carolina Conference and from United Methodist churches in 28 states gave both books and supplies. … In all, we had more than 12,000 books. We gave them all to the library here.”
The book drive was a natural for Guess, creator of the Rudy the Red Pig series and author of an upcoming trilogy on Katrina. A member of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., Guess is also the minister of music and children and youth education at St. John’s Lutheran Church in nearby Concord. All of her skills as a teacher and artist come into play at the three-day camp.
“I felt called there to serve,” she says. “The need is still great in Mississippi, and when they see me come, it is like seeing an aunt coming for a visit. It's a time to have fun, to escape, and to know that someone is offering you a hand to hold.”
Bringing the fun
“No one brings as much fun as Miss Catherine does,” says 9-year-old Ashlee Delbuno, as she heads to what the children consider the highlight of summer camp: the carnival.
As party tunes play from a portable CD player, children rush across the concrete floor to get in line at seven game booths stationed around the large multipurpose room next door to the classroom area. The carnival is held indoors to protect the 60 or so kids from the July heat.
“I won!” shouts Tearsizah Jones, showing her new beaded necklaces with a grin.
United Methodist congregations and other agencies provide many of the prizes given to the children, such as coin purses and small toys. The kids smile as they move from the limbo line station to the football toss, play ring toss or cast a fishing line over a stage curtain to catch a prize.
“Just to see the children’s faces it makes the whole trip worthwhile,” says high school teacher Melanie Hudson, one of almost a dozen volunteers who traveled with Guess from the Charlotte area.
Volunteers estimate that about half of the children attending this year’s camp are still living in temporary housing.
Skylar’s dad is preparing to move the family for a fourth time since the hurricane.
“We’ve almost got a house to live in,” says Jeremiah Ritchie, a single father of three who is unemployed. “We’ve spent the last couple of years moving from a temporary camper, to a trailer and then to what they call a cottage. It’s been hard. Not everything is fixed.”
Many of the campers lost all their belongings in the hurricane, including their own art and mementos.
“These kids keep all the crafts we make each year … because they don’t have much else from before Katrina came,” Guess says. “It’s one of the reasons we needed to rebuild the community’s library. … These children had no books.”
With a theme of “Passport to Southeast Asia,” this year’s camp features the culture and cuisine of Cambodia. Guess had helped develop a vacation Bible school curriculum for The United Methodist Church’s Western North Carolina Conference based on background work she did for a book set in Cambodia.
“I immediately recognized the need to share the experiences of children in Cambodia, with the children of Mississippi … to see that everyone is dealing with something,” she says. “It offers these children a sense of other people in the world overcoming obstacles.”
She brings the lessons home to the kids, who are elementary to middle school age.
“Did you know the children in Cambodia also face problems with heat and hardship?” Guess asks. “Some of those children know what it is to lose things they love and be without … so they have to learn to make some of their own fun, too. We’re going to learn how to make kites like they do in Cambodia.”
Kite making is followed by clay work. “You are going to tell your story using clay because just like we shape the clay… you are being shaped by God, using every one of your experiences,” Guess tells the campers, who then begin working at their tables.
“The fun and the laughter is medicine for them,” Guess says. “The children do this art, they laugh, and it is all healing for them. It gets their minds off what they’ve lost, and it reminds them of what they do have.”
For Skylar, it has meant a different view of the world. “After Katrina, my heart was just broke,” he says. “This camp just makes me open up and see the world much better. I love it. When I lost everything, I didn’t have fun. She (Miss Catherine) is saying kids should have fun. This camp makes me want to help people, too.”
Though Guess doesn’t have a site for next year, she is committed to holding the camp.
"There is still a lot of work to do here,” she says, “and as long as there is a need and lives to be shaped, I'll come."