Youth find ways to help others after violence

BY SUSAN KIM | LITTLE ROCK, Ark. | August 3, 1999


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Aug. 3, 1999) -- Sixteen months after a school

shooting left four students and a teacher dead at the Westside Middle

School in Jonesboro, Ark., the healing goes on.

Together at summer camp this week, 75 students from the school had a

chance to build on the steps they've already taken. They're not only

coping with that traumatic and still-vivid memory but learning to

tell their story in a way that could help someone else.

That 'someone else' could be the students at the scene of the more

recent school shooting in Littleton, CO where 15 people died. "When

they heard about the Littleton shooting, many of these students felt

they could help because they came from the same experience," said

David Gill, who is directing the camp at the Ferncliff Camp and

Conference Center on the outskirts of Little Rock. This is the second

summer the camp has been offered, with a spring break camp in between.

As Gill and other camp leaders are consider what roles the Jonesboro

students could take during the long-term recovery from the Littleton

shooting, the young people, most13 or 14 years old, are focusing on

continuing their own healing this week. At camp, they are accessing

feelings of trust, safety, and joy that may have been buried under

layers of trauma.

This year, the survivors are also adding the goal of finding their

own voice so they can tell their story. Through camp activities such

as music, art, and storytelling -- all touching indirectly on the

theme of healing -- many are finding the words to describe their

sadness or the self-confidence to express their joy.

But it's not overt therapy, said Gill, because the activities are fun

first, therapeutic second. "For example, each camper is crafting a

walking stone -- a cement square decorated with colorful glass -- and

that's going to become a permanent 'Westside Walk' here at

Ferncliff," he said.

"And in another activity, role-playing, we tell them to act out a

situation where something happened that bothered them - then act it

out in the way they wish it had happened. Some choose topics related

to the shooting, and some don't. We're not forcing it," he explained.

Discussions have been more direct than last year because students are

ready for that now, said Linda Van Blaricom, a therapist in Little

Rock who is a counselor at the camp.

"Last year at this time, nearly every kid at this camp had

post-traumatic stress syndrome. They had nightmares, startle

responses, and a lot of fear. On the Tuesday of camp -- and Tuesday

was the day the shooting occurred -- some were hyperventilating, or

crying," she said.

"But this year we've made it through Tuesday with fewer signs of

that. They are finally able to use words to express their sadness

now. Our goal is to enable them to use their experience and strength

to move into leadership positions."

This year 75 students attended, eight more than last summer -- and

the camp has earned solid teacher, parental, and faith-based support.

"Parents had more than 10 fundraising events and earned more than

$10,000 to help underwrite the costs," said Gill.

In response, the camp also added a Parent's Day, because "parents

need to be part of the healing team," said Gill.

The Ferncliff facility is owned by the Presbyterian Church US, and

that denomination and a myriad of others have contributed funding for

the camp. The camp staff, who have themselves have diverse faiths and

specialties, are "people who are drawn to this kind of work," said

Van Blaricom, who is a member of the Little Rock Unitarian

Universalist Church.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), through a Week of

Compassion effort, are among the many denominations that supported

the camp. "I think that many of us have felt helpless and have not

known what to do in the aftermath of all the school shootings. While

we certainly need to think of what we can do to prevent such acts, we

also need to support efforts of healing and recovery," said Johnny

Wray, who coordinates the Week of Compassion.

Gill said he plans to offer the camp each summer until the last

students graduate in 2004. "This is a long-term commitment to kids

even after the story has faded from the front page -- and from the

back page," he said. "They know they have a special role. What

they've been through makes them unique. They can see themselves as

victims or they can start believing, 'I have a special story that can

help others heal - and help myself heal.' "

Many students, parents, teachers, and camp staff credit Gill's vision

for making the camp a reality. "There was so much raw feeling and

pain after the shooting, that we needed a vision for how to cope with

it. As a mental health person, there is no way I could have

accomplished this with these kids in a private office. It's the whole

camp environment, the natural setting, the synergy among the staff,

and the trust with parents that has evolved," said Van Blaricom.

"Last year at this camp we had a group of emotionally wounded young

people," she added. "This year, I would consider them wounded

healers."

Posted August 3, 1999


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