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Camp helps kids post-disaster

The timeless story of Noah is helping children wade through the emotions that follow disasters.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | July 18, 2006

The timeless story of Noah is helping children wade through the emotions that follow disasters.

At First Christian Church - based in Port Arthur, Texas - Scott Miller watched a transformation in dozens of young children who participated in Camp Noah, a week-long therapeutic, faith-based day camp.

"I saw that during the camp, they worked through some of their fears and anxieties of storms by using the Noah story," said Miller, associate pastor at the church.

Children are often portrayed as resilient but studies have found they are among the most emotionally vulnerable people affected by disasters.

In the wake of the 2005 hurricane season, hundreds of thousands of children experienced something terrifying. Since then, the focus for many families has been re-establishing the basics of life: health care, shelter and employment.

Studies have shown that, unless children are given the tools or opportunity to rebuild their lives emotionally and spiritually, a disaster can have a negative impact that can last a life time.

The camp - founded by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota but offered to churches of any denomination in many states - gives campers the framework to talk about their own disaster experiences and emotions. The camp is offered for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Miller said the components of the Noah story lend themselves to strong yet simple comparisons to modern life.

"We saw that, as Noah prepared to build the ark, that was us preparing to leave from a disaster," he said. "As Noah loaded the ark, that was us leaving the territory we were in to go for cover."

Each day, the children hear about a different aspect of Noah's story. "While we were in temporary housing, that was while Noah was on the ark," said Miller. "And then Noah sending out the dove also showed us there was a safe return, for us to come back."

Camp Noah also emphasizes preparation. As a community, Port Arthur is well-prepared for hurricanes, said Miller, but people don't always take that preparation down to a personal level.

"We always look at things that the city is doing, that the county is doing and that the state is doing," he said. "But we never really think about the home and how they're preparing for disasters."

"On Monday during Camp Noah, we got to walk through the steps of a hurricane - and how they predict hurricanes - with a meteorologist. And then we also talked about evacuation routes."

The children also talked about things a family needs in a preparedness kit. "I think working through that with the camp, that's showing the kids as well as the parents ways they can plan for a disaster," said Miller.

The camp helped the church connect with new people, added Miller, since 64% of the participants were non-church members.

For Port Arthur and other communities, the hope is that children will leave Camp Noah feeling more confident and having fewer disaster-related stress symptoms.

About Camp Noah

Camp Noah was created by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota in response to the flooding in the Upper Midwest in 1997. Hundreds of children were served that summer in numerous communities of Minnesota and North Dakota. Since that time Camp Noah has served children affected by tornadoes, tropical storms, floods and hurricanes in the following states: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, Puerto Rico and North Carolina.

Camps are currently being held in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas.

In 2003, the Mississippi Center for Disease Control and Prevention did a multi-state evaluation of Camp Noah's effectiveness. The results indicated that after attending camp, "examples of behavioral and symptom changes included children being calmer, better able to speak about what happened to them, sleeping through the night, and having stopped regressive behaviors."

Camp Noah is offered free to families affected by disaster. The program is supported by ecumenical, community and regional partners. The camps are led by trained staff and volunteers.

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