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Kids cope with 'storm stress'

Some children in coastal Alabama throw up every time it rains.

BY SUSAN KIM | GULF SHORES, Ala. | June 29, 2005

"It’s set up to give kids an opportunity to express themselves."

—Amelia Fletcher

Some children in coastal Alabama throw up every time it rains. Others haven’t been able to sleep in their own beds since last hurricane season.

It’s storm stress, and it’s very real, said Gulf Shores resident Amelia Fletcher, coordinator of the disaster recovery team at Gulf Shores United Methodist Church.

“Children don’t have coping and verbal skills,” she added. “They know they’re afraid when it rains but they don’t know how to cope with that.”

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

But now Camp Noah is coming to town - and the week-long, therapeutic, faith-based day camp might give kids a way to cope, according to Fletcher and other responders.

Working with the a regional interfaith group called the Island Churches Recovery Team, and with the Alabama Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Fletcher has been instrumental in bringing the camp to her area.

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.

This year, the camp’s organizers are offering the curriculum in Florida and Puerto Rico as well as Alabama, and they hope to serve some 3,000 children.

The camp has become especially important in coastal Alabama in the wake of last year’s Hurricane Ivan, which made landfall Sept. 16, 2004. Hurricane Ivan was the ninth named storm, the sixth hurricane, and the fourth major hurricane of the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season. It made landfall near Gulf Shores as a Category 4 hurricane.

With a new hurricane season already underway, addressing children’s emotional needs is even more important, said Fletcher, who said Tropical Storm Arlene earlier this month brought a lot of anxiety. “Arlene shook our tree a little bit,” she said.

About 50 kids will attend the camp, which will be held at Gulf Shores United Methodist Church, said Fletcher.

Fletcher was at a meeting about long-term recovery when she heard about Camp Noah. “When they presented the concept, I really liked it,” she said. “It’s set up to give kids an opportunity to express themselves. And when you look seriously at the curriculum, there is some meat there. I mean, God took Noah through this. I think the story is just so perfect.

“These kids have been in shelters. A lot of kids haven’t been in their own rooms since September. And Camp Noah is just set up so beautifully for those kids to relate to. I mean, maybe you don’t have your own little bed but you can know Noah slept alongside elephants and lions and snakes and monkeys. No wonder all these parents have just embraced it.”

The effect of last year’s hurricanes on children’s needs could easily go unnoticed by the larger community, said Fletcher. “Driving down the highway, you think things are fine,” she said.

Fletcher has come through her own personal storm to help her community in this effort. “My husband has had some very serious health issues. He was in surgery when 9/11 happened, he was in open heart surgery. He has had two bouts of cancer. He’s great right now.

“So after Hurricane Ivan, when we got to our house and we just had one leak, and my husband was healthy, I wanted to see what I could do.”

The next Sunday, Fletcher’s pastor asked people who wanted to help the disaster-stricken communities to come forward after the church service. The congregation is still not back in its sanctuary, which was badly damaged by the storm.

Fletcher never thought she’d be the coordinator for her church’s effort, she said. “But God raised up Moses, and Moses didn’t want to go. And so I went. And, well, we had 300 volunteers in town this week.”

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