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Hurricanes worry kids

Seven months after the end of hurricane season, thousands of children still have emotional storm clouds looming over them, say clergy and community leaders.

BY SUSAN KIM | FT. MYERS, Fla. | April 2, 2005

"The effects of the hurricanes live on in the lives of these children and their families."

—Melanie Davis

Seven months after the end of hurricane season, thousands of children still have emotional storm clouds looming over them, say clergy and community leaders.

“One little girl told me she was in her closet for four hours while a hurricane was going over,” said the Rev. Kent Lee at the Gateway Trinity Lutheran Church in Ft. Myers, Florida.

And some children look up at a cloudy sky and their fear returns. “Some kids still think another hurricane is happening imminently,” said Sheryl Soukup, director of Families First of Southwest Florida.

As pastors, counselors and parents try to sooth those fears, they’re only too aware that another hurricane season will arrive in less than two months.

“As the next hurricane season approaches, fears and anxieties will escalate,” predicted Melanie Davis, director of disaster services for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and a founder of a program, called Camp Noah, that is a week-long, therapeutic, faith-based day camp.

“Camp Noah helps children in their recovery, their spiritual journey, and their preparation to better handle future storms,” explained Davis.

Christian education directors, pastors and community leaders in Florida aim to offer at least 50 Camp Noah programs this summer free of charge to families across the state. Alabama and Puerto Rico are gearing up to offer the camp as well. Davis and other camp leaders would like to reach at least 3,000 kids.

Camp Noah was founded following the 1997 flooding in the Upper Midwest, during which thousands of people were displaced. Leaders from Lutheran Disaster Response and its partner agency, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, recognized that many emotional needs of children were not being addressed. Many daycare centers and summer recreation programs were unable to operate.

This year in Florida, people who work with children said the camp is badly needed, and that the approaching hurricane season will exacerbate existing stress on kids.

“We’re going to see discipline problems in children. And children who were once extroverts will become introverts,” said Claribel Baron, camp and children's ministry coordinator for Christians Reaching Out to Society, Inc., based in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Hundreds of thousands of children endured the effects of last season’s hurricanes, added Davis. “In Florida alone, over 250,000 children experienced the impact of three hurricanes. Seven months later, thousands of families are still not in their homes and many more live in disrepair.

“Some 1,200 children in one heavily damaged county have left the school system to live permanently or temporarily somewhere else. Their school records have not yet been transferred. Their whereabouts are unknown to staff.”

The upheaval in children’s lives is by no means over, agreed Baron. "There are many families still living in RVs,” she said. “One family I work with - it’s a single mom with three kids, and one of the kids is sleeping on the floor in the RV because there is not enough room. And that’s just one example.”

Baron, who was 13 years old when Hurricane Andrew destroyed her family’s home in Homestead, Florida, said she appreciates on a personal level what programs like Camp Noah have to offer. “My mom didn’t know of any such programs at that time. I would be really scared every time it got windy.”

Such fears are long-lasting, and tend to intensify with every new storm, said Davis. “The effects of the hurricanes live on in the lives of these children and their families,” she said. “Additional stress tears at the fabric that holds families together. Many individuals and families feel the impact of increased substance and domestic abuse as people try to cope. Children need more support when parents have less capacity to give.”

A Centers for Disease Control study commended Camp Noah for its effectiveness - but Davis and others said the camp will continue to be effective only if it receives crucial voluntary and monetary support.

“Many of the leaders and families of these disaster-impacted communities are passionate about offering Camp Noah but are exhausted emotionally, physically and financially,” explained Davis.

Camp leaders are aiming to attract more than $400,000 in monetary donations, and they are also currently recruiting college-age staff and volunteer specialists to work with the children. “Sixty of the finest college-age youth are being recruited to spend a summer working with these special children,” said Davis.

Many communities are making a special effort to identify children most in need. Rev. Lee is working with Families First to identify disabled children who could benefit from Camp Noah.

“I welcome and embrace Camp Noah reaching out to families of children with disabilities,” said Soukup of Families First. “Children with disabilities have their own set of specialized needs any time of the year but a natural disaster can compound those regular everyday challenges.”

Many psychologists agree that children, like adults, do grieve but that they have less capacity to express their grief and make sense of it.

“Children with disabilities may have a difficult time processing what happened and why,” said Soukup. “They may have no ability to assimilate all that information. You may have to tell them over and over. Camp Noah will offer them one more way to process that information.”

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Related Links:

• PODCAST interview with Claribel Baron, coordinator of Children's Ministries for Christians Reaching Out to Society, Inc.:: Camp Noah helps children deal with disasters

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