Author develops camp to help children deal with storm


Special to the Advocate

Catherine Ritch Guess of North Carolina was on the Mississippi Gulf Coast recently conducting a children’s camp at Main Street United Methodist Church in Bay St. Louis.

Guess is the author of 15 books including fiction and children’s books, as well as composer of three musical CDs. When she learned that many children in Louisiana and Mississippi lost most of their libraries and books in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and heard the reports of concern for their emotional well being, she knew she needed to respond. With the help of Rudy the Red Pig, the star of her children’s book series, the Bay St. Louis art camp became part of “Rudy’s Great Gulf Coast Adventures.” The Rev. Sheila Cumbest, Mississippi Conference Ministerial Services director, helped to organize Guess’ July visit. Guess spoke with Lisa Michiels about her adventure. 

Q.    What brought you to the Mississippi Gulf Coast? 

A.    A Sunday morning Today show that told how many children and schools in the Gulf Coast were still without books. Being an author whose mother began the library in my rural area of North Carolina, that hurt tremendously. That was what created the awareness. But it was losing everything I owned five years ago, due to an extremely rare autoimmune disease that actually brought me to Mississippi. I’d have sent a fat check before that time, but I knew what it was like to have everything one minute and nothing the next. When there’s nothing left to give, you give yourself. I had a bond, of sorts, with these children. 

Q.  How did you choose the activities for the camp? 

A.  I tried to find themes that would make the children comfortable with the situation and a group of strangers, themes that would allow them to open up to us with their own stories. And boy, did they! I wanted them to understand that through all the destruction, and incredible and lasting devastation of this situation, they were indeed blessed people with a story that the entire world needs to hear for a long time to come. This opened a wide door for explaining oral tradition, how it was used to create the Bible, and how the Gulf Coast is steeped in that technique. 

As for the activities, I tried  to choose things that would relate to the various themes and would work for all the ages involved, be something they could do after we left and that would make an impression on them. With this year being full of variables, such as location, numbers, ages, it was harder to plan.

But it all surely seemed to work. God was truly the master designer, as always! 

Q. Knowing that these kids have come through the country’s worst natural disaster, what were your expectations and what did you find?

A.  The story and experience of Hurricane Katrina was clearly etched on every child’s mind. They told their stories so articulately and poignantly; it was obvious that the stories are truly a “part” of them, of their make-up. Their comments were far richer than I’d expected and they had a lasting effect on everyone who came to help. 

I had expected their social levels to be lacking, which was the case for some, but for others, the culture of the Gulf Coast was quite apparent in their ability to not only hold on, but kick back. 

What I found most touching was the fact that you knew this was the first time some of these children had run, played, laughed, etc., since Katrina. Even their parents commented as such, and said what a calming effect the event had on their children.

The children had obviously soaked up everything we did, as parents (told) us the next morning. The parents were as touched and appreciative as the children. 

What struck many of the youth with me was that not only do these children have to deal with the residual “mess” (emotional, financial, social, mental and physical) of Katrina, they have to deal with all the other normal hardships of growing up, which is difficult enough in itself. 

On top of that, their parents have so much on their plates that the children really suffer at home. This is not the parents’ fault, it’s simply the way it is with their attempt for survival and climbing back out of the hold Katrina has left them in. 

Q.  What stands out the most in your experience with the Gulf Coast children? 

A.  Their lack of complaints and their resilience in dealing with this catastrophe at their young ages. It truly showed the pure, simplicity of the faith of a child. There was no longer a class system, a socio-economic breakdown. That was actually a very beautiful and enlightening thing as they all looked out for each other.

The fact that most all of them brought in a back pack, with all their belongings, for if they’re left at home, they probably won’t be there when they return. 

Q. What’s next on Rudy’s Gulf Coast Adventure? 

A.  Rudy will have a Christmas book coming out Nov. 7 to help raise more funds for next year.  We’re planning a mini camp at the end of January or February. A reunion camp for the ones who attended this one, and a chance for newcomers to see what the next summer will hold. 

Also, we have 10,000 books looking for a home with children. I’ll be contacting all the schools, daycares and churches to see where needs still lie with that venture. 

In addition to working with the children, I hope to do some events for senior adults. I’d love to teach a free writing class for adults and youth — anyone interested. The stories there are just waiting to erupt, and need to erupt for emotional stability. 

I’m building a new house right now that will include space for Rudy’s mission work for the Gulf. Children can come experience a hands-on opportunity by providing and/or preparing materials for Rudy’s Great Gulf Adventures. My goal is to visit the Gulf at least twice a year, and hopefully three times annually. Also, we have many professional artists hoping to join us.  We already plan to do one week in the Biloxi/Gulfport area next summer, and one in Bay St. Louis again. 

To learn more about Guess and Rudy’s Great Gulf Coast Adventure visit