Summer camp helps survivors in AR

BY GEORGE PIPER | JONESBORO, AR | April 24, 1999


JONESBORO, AR (April 24, 1999) -- The crush of counselors and psychologists

now tending to Littleton, CO, school shooting survivors will subside in a

few weeks, potentially leaving lives still in need of emotional healing say

professionals who have worked in similar situations.

David Gill saw the same need in Jonesboro last spring after deadly

violence also ocurred at Westside Middle School. Working through Jonesboro

churches, Gill offered the teen survivors a chance to trade in part of

their summer for a week of at his camp.

After a successful experience in 1998 and a spring break camp this year,

the partnership between the Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center and

Jonesboro's youths is slated to continue until those affected by last

year's incident graduate from high school.

It's an idea, says Ferncliff director Gill and camp chaplain Father Jack

Harris, that can be adapted to other communities when school turns violent.

Ferncliff is a Presbyterian Church U.S.A.-owned facility located just west

of Little Rock and some two hours from Jonesboro, site of the March 24,

1998, incident where two young boys executed a fatal plan that killed four

students and a teacher on a school playground. A few days after the

shooting, Gill thought the camp would be an excellent resource to help

students in their long-term recovery.

Organizers set three goals for the camp: assist youths in their healing;

create a safe place to be together; and help the kids begin to feel trust

and safety in a larger community.

Rather than portray the Ferncliff opportunity as therapy, Gill and

other leaders, promoted the games and activities -- in other words: Come

have fun. The camp, which also included some counseling, provides a group

setting that the kids might not get during the summer in Jonesboro.

While the activities were fun, each event reinforced God's love and

encouraged self-assurance while offering the children a chance to come to

grips with their feelings of anger and grief.

Organizers of the ecumenical camp let the art and music provide the real

therapy as students -- together for the first time since the school year

ended -- had a chance to bond with each other and experience normal kid

things.

For example, parents reported that students were jumpy when Independence Day

fireworks boomed. One of camp's musicians brought percussion instruments --

like drums -- that allowed the students to associate noise with something

positive, says Linda VanBlaricom, a Little Rock therapist who worked at the

camp.

"We let them conduct and lead and make noise and take charge of it that

way," she says, adding that other exercises proved cathartic and healing for

campers.

It's that kind of subtle healing that has helped the Jonesboro kids retake

the middle school campus, says Harris, a priest at Blessed Sacrament Roman

Catholic Church in Jonesboro. He visits the school regularly to eat lunch

with students or watch athletic events as he continues the support he has

offered during the past year.

"It's a wonderful ministry of presence without ever talking directly about

the shooting itself," Harris says.

School shootings are tough on students because they haven't had a chance to

develop the emotional defense mechanisms of many adults, notes Harris. The camp

allowed the Jonesboro kids to reach their comfort level and gives them an

chance to talk about what they're experiencing. "One of the parents said,

'I've got my kid back,'" says VanBlaricom.

About one-third of Westside's 200 students signed up last year, including

six who had been shot and a majority of those on the playground when the

shooting began. "We felt as if we reached kids who needed it the most," Gill

says.

The curriculum for this year's camp is still evolving, but Gill believes the

process can let the students to help others who have been through similar

crises. At the next pre-camp meeting, Gill plans to discuss the Littleton

situation and what, if anything, the campers and organizers can do for that

community.

He hopes to gives campers a chance to express themselves more while teaching

them new skills and building self-esteem. Gill hopes to have all 68 of last

year's students back while accommodating the 40 additional students who

signed up this year.

While rural Jonesboro and suburban Littleton may not share the same

demographics, Gill would like officials in Colorado to develop some type of

summertime program before the students begin the next school year.

One telling example of how far Jonesboro has come lies in what didn't happen

Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. Harris said he expected calls from

school officials and parents as word of the Littleton shooting spread. It

was a day everyone dreaded, but the community seems to have met that

challenge okay.

Although chaplain at the camp, Harris purposely avoided going to Westside

the past two days, instead choosing to let school officials call him if they

had any problems. He believes the Ferncliff camp contributes to the strong

sense of recovery there.

"It's made them happy and healthier, and it's a part of the overall program

that the school used to move on from this," he says.

Updated April 24, 1999


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