National Alliance on Mental Illness
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June 15, 2006

Summer Camps to Meet Spiritual, Mental Health Needs of Young Gulf Coast Disaster Survivors

CHICAGO -- Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSSM) will offer more than 65 camps this summer for school-aged children who were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Of the one million people displaced by the 2005 hurricanes, 372,000 were school-aged children in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to Susan Kim, news editor, Disaster Relief Network.

LSSM, in cooperation with Lutheran Social Services of the South (LSSS) and Lutheran Disaster Response, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), will offer these children an opportunity for fun and healing with Camp Noah programs this summer in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

"We hope to offer 50 week-long camps during the summer of 2006," said Carol Flores, regional coordinator, Camp Noah Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, LSSS. Each camp hosts up to 50 children.

The week-long therapeutic camps will serve children in the U.S. Gulf Coast that were affected by the hurricanes of 2005.

"The children who are coming to our camps this summer need Camp Noah badly," said Carrie Hartwig, site coordinator, Baton Rouge, La. "They have experienced things that we wish no one would ever have to experience, and their emotional state shows it. There are so few programs to help children who have experienced disaster, and Camp Noah does just that. It helps the children to process what they have been through and to have a lot of fun in the process. Many of the children would not be able to have such an experience if it weren't for Camp Noah," she said. Hartwig's site, Trinity Lutheran Church, Baton Rouge, is hosting six camps this summer.

"Camp Noah helps to provide an opportunity for fun," said Cindy Johnson, director of disaster response, LSSM. "It helps to provide a safe environment so children can share their feelings and be supported by trained, compassionate counselors."

The Camp Noah curriculum centers on the biblical story of Noah, allowing children to confront their disaster experiences in a faith-based, supportive environment. The story of Noah provides a framework for the campers to talk about their emotions and learn disaster coping skills.

"Camp Noah is about rebuilding the lives and souls of children," Johnson said.

Children address fears at camp

Camp Noah offers a safe setting for children to address their fears in an effort to relieve reactive symptoms. Many of the children affected by the Gulf Coast hurricanes are beginning to show signs of emotional distress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, symptoms often surface several months or even years after the traumatic event.

"There have been studies telling us that the children [on the Gulf Coast] are just beginning to have an understanding of how their lives have changed," Johnson said.

A study at Columbia University, New York, compared the children displaced by hurricane Katrina with children surveyed in Louisiana in 2003. Katrina's victims were more than twice as likely to experience anxiety, depression and behavioral problems. Another assessment estimated that of the 1.2 million children that were living in Katrina disaster zones, as many as 8 percent are expected to develop PTSD.

"We have already heard stories about kids that are still having nightmares about water or about dying," Flores said. "Many children still get anxious when it storms outside."

The objectives of Camp Noah include decreasing the number of behavioral or emotional symptoms children experience following a disaster, increasing children's coping skills with bad weather and increasing children's understanding of God's role in their lives.

"We hope to provide some renewed hope as we remind them that, no matter what happens in their lives, God is always with them," Hartwig said.

In 2003 the Mississippi Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a multi-state evaluation of Camp Noah's effectiveness. The results showed 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." About 50 percent of the children surveyed also said they learned that God was with them.

Volunteers important to Camp Noah

The Camp Noah program provides volunteer mental health professionals that are available to the children throughout the week.

"We really want to offer a health professional at each camp that can offer ongoing mental care for the children and their families," Johnson said. "That way the camp isn't just about a week-long experience. There's an opportunity for ongoing care."

In Louisiana mental health support has been coordinated by Louisiana Spirit, "a conglomeration of social service agencies that have come together to respond to the storms," according to Flores.

As with many Camp Noah volunteers, Hartwig's camp site recruited its mental health professional through the congregation. This summer most of the camps will be organized and run by volunteers from congregations and church organizations around the country. There are more than 45 volunteer teams, including 18 teams from congregations and church organizations in Minnesota.

"Because of the magnitude of this particular disaster, it's difficult for people [along the Gulf Coast] to think of hosting Camp Noah themselves, so we rely heavily on volunteers," Johnson said. "They just don't have the resources."

Each volunteer team pays a $2,500 registration fee as well as transportation costs. Teams receive special training to participate in Camp Noah. Because the camp is free of charge for the children, LSSM relies on volunteers, donations and grants to support the program.

Each camp is expected to fill, meaning Camp Noah will serve more than 3,000 children this summer.

Camp Noah is open to any children kindergarten through sixth grade who have been through a disaster. While Camp Noah is sponsored in large part by the ELCA, other church denominations are involved and children are welcome to participate regardless of their faith tradition.

More information about Camp Noah, including volunteer opportunities, is available online. Information about Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is also available online.

Source: ELCA News Service

Visit the NAMI FaithNet Web site for more information on faith and mental illness