The wildfires of October 2017 had a dramatic impact on the entire region. Dozens of lives were lost; thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, as were crops; and countless families were displaced as the Northern California firestorm – as the 250 fires came to be known – cut a swath across some 245,00 acres in six counties.
Among the most affected were the children. And in order for children to rebound from trauma and continue to grow and thrive, they require safe spaces and age-appropriate ways to process their experience of disaster.
Camp Noah makes that possible. In existence for 20 years, Camp Noah is a nationally acclaimed preparedness and resiliency program for children, held across the U.S. in communities that have been impacted by disaster and trauma. This summer, thanks to a partnership engaging The United Methodist Church, Lutheran Social Services, the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, Rebuilding our Community (ROC) Sonoma County, the Emotional and Spiritual Support Committee of Mendocino-Rebuilding Our Community (M-ROC), and a variety of local businesses and organizations, 80 children were able to experience healing and empowerment at two Camp Noah locations.
One week of Camp Noah was held for 40 campers at First United Methodist Church of Santa Rosa’s Stony Point campus in late July, staffed by volunteers from six local churches and five mental health professionals from California Hope. Engaging the ancient story of Noah and the Ark, the children (many of whom were Coffey Park survivors, referred to the program through social service agencies, teachers, or family members) processed their own "storm story," and found empowering ways to prepare for the next time a disaster strikes. In this safe and supportive setting, children were encouraged to face their fears, grieve their losses, and identify and share their unique gifts and talents. Those who needed special attention found solace and a listening ear in “the quiet room” staffed by a professional counselor.
“The transformation we witnessed was amazing,” says the Rev. Laurie McHugh, pastor of Windsor UMC, who led music for the camp. “On the first day, many children were reluctant to participate, and by day three, they were fully engaged. It was really wonderful to see them feeling free to just act like kids.”
McHugh and FUMC Santa Rosa worked together with an interfaith group to raise funds and gather volunteers for the camp. The Monday-Friday day camp program, which is offered free to participants and includes breakfast, lunch, and snacks, was so successful that organizers hope to offer it on a regular basis – since we are likely to experience other disasters. “The need continues,” McHugh says.
Sonja Edd-Bennett, Director of the Disaster Response Ministry for the California-Nevada Annual Conference of the UMC, says her hope is to offer “a minimum of five camps” next summer. The partnership is working with the Camp Noah organization to find ways to reduce expenses, so as to make that possible. Training local volunteers, rather than bringing in a team from another part of the country, is part of the capacity-building strategy.
If you have or know a child who would be interested in attending a week of Camp Noah over spring break or next summer (dates and location TBA), or if you are interested in volunteering, please contact Elizabeth Walton at 707-545-3863 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Acknowledgments: The Rev. Laurie McHugh, who provided the fundamental material for this article.
Read about Camp Noah in Mendocino County here.