Newtown Congregational Church is part of a group of churches in town that traditionally participates in an ecumenical summer vacation bible school. Trinity Episcopal Church will be hosting that offering this summer, but it was NCC that played host to a faith valued program for Newtown children during the week of July 15–19. It was a special offering for the children of Newtown as they, like their adult counterparts, continue to grapple with 12/14 and its aftermath.
Camp Noah is a weeklong day camp for children whose communities have been impacted by disaster. Camps are held in cities and towns in cooperation with local partners. In Newtown’s case the camp, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota (LSSM), was co-hosted by NCC, St Rose of Lima, and Newtown Memorial Fund to present the 30 hours of therapeutic play-focused creative activities.
A group of 25 Penn State students; Pastor David Hershey, the chaplain for Penn State; and four LSSM staff members traveled to Newtown to present Camp Noah. The group arrived on Saturday, July 13, and met with local parents and others who briefed them on 12/14 and Newtown within 24 hours.
The team slept at NCC, showered at Newtown Youth Academy, and had their evening meals prepared by Newtown United Methodist Church and St Rose of Lima families. On Sunday, the team painted a small-scale ark that been built in The Great Room of NCC for the group by Newtown resident Larry Whippie.
Within hours it was 9 am Monday, and campers were arriving. Children who have completed kindergarten through grade 6 were invited to participate, and 57 took part in the offering.
The camp’s curriculum contains materials and activities for five days, divided into morning and afternoon sessions, with breaks for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Each day builds on the previous day, and gives each child the space and time necessary to tell their stories, building resiliency skills.
“Some are born with it. Some have it as part of their lives,” Cari Logan, the national program manager of Camp Noah for LSSM, said July 18. “Some of us have to be taught these skills.
“The earlier in life we learn about this, the better off we are at coping in a healthy manner,” she continued. “We all having coping mechanisms — some healthy, others not. Resiliency is about staying healthy.”
To begin each week, campers listen to a story.
“We use the story of Noah to set themes through each day,” said Ms Logan. “We use that story as a base — what life was like before the flood, what it was like after that, and the promise of new beginnings — for the children to relate to.”
Children are encouraged, she said, “to talk about their own stories … through writing, drawing, or verbal expressions.” Campers and counselors work in small groups, within a safe and supportive setting. Children are, according to Camp Noah program notes, “encouraged to face their fears, grieve their losses, identify and share their unique gifts and talents, and plan for an amazing future.”
“We allow children to choose what they want to talk about,” she continued. “Some will talk about the death of an animal, others will talk about divorce. They are encouraged to talk about what may be bothering them. They choose what they want to talk about, and at what level they want to expose” their thoughts and fears, she continued.
Between the serious talks, there is playtime and fun activities. Children begin each day within a large group gathering, with songs, skits, and fun. Mornings are spent in discussion groups, art projects, journaling, and recreation. Afternoons are spent listening to stories, playing games, watching puppet shows, and doings arts and crafts. Each day concludes with mores songs, skits, and fun as a large group.
With all this, healing begins.
“On Monday, day one, there was a definite hesitation [for children] to leave their parents,” said Ms Logan. “By this time in the week, they’re leaving Mom and Dad and running to their friends. We see the light come back into their faces.
“The beautiful thing about Camp Noah is children begin to care for each other,” she continued. “They start showing empathy toward each other. They really help each other as they talk and play.”
Newtown resident Linda Whippie served as the local coordinator for Camp Noah.
“Parents have given me positive feedback as they head out the door,” she said. “A few have told me they wish it would go on for a few weeks.”
There was no cost for any family who wanted to send their child(ren) to Camp Noah. Funding was provided through Newtown United Methodist Church, St Rose of Lima, and the United Church of Christ-CT (of which Newtown Congregational Church is a member). In addition, according to Ms Logan and Mrs Whippie, Penn State donated 30 percent of the funds needed for the July presentation.
On Thursday, July 18, when The Bee visited NCC near the end of the afternoon session, children were running around the side lawn of the West Street church, playing water games. Small wading pools had been set up, and most children had changed into bathing suits. In the middle of a heat wave, and four days into Camp Noah, the sound of laughter filled the air.
The young adults who traveled from Penn State to facilitate Camp Noah at NCC did not “clomp on to ‘the Newtown thing,’” said Ms Logan.
“The students signed up for Camp Noah last year, before they even knew where they would be going this summer,” she said. “It’s a pretty established curriculum,” which can be applied in many settings.
Since 1997, Camp Noah has been presented in communities across the country that have been affected by disaster. Locations often include churches, schools, summer camps, youth service organizations, and community centers. Camp staff can be local or national, or a combination. For Newtown’s Camp Noah, a team from Penn State who presented the program was supplemented by local volunteers who served as chefs, registration volunteers, security volunteers, the camp’s onsite nurse, and door openers. While camp was ongoing, the church building was closed to all outsiders, which maintained the safe setting parents were promised when they signed their children up for the weeklong day camp.
(After photos of Ms Logan and local coordinator Linda Whippie were taken outside, the interview with the two women was conducted in the church’s Great Room, out of earshot of participants and without the identity of any of the children being shared with the newspaper.)
Staff members who traveled to Newtown have been background checked and trained through LSSM. Most of the local volunteers had to sign up by July 1 in order to go through a local background check. Cleanup volunteers, who visited the church after 4 pm each day, were not in contact with children and therefore did not go through background checks.
Each camper receives a paintable ark, a Camp Noah T-shirt, a fully equipped Camp Noah Preparedness Backpack, multiple craft items and all the supplies necessary to complete the creative activities for the week, and a handmade quilt or blanket. The blankets that were sent for Newtown’s children were made by residents of Crow Wing County, Minnesota.
“I’ve watched campers walk outside wrapped up, even in this heat, in their blankets, said Ms Logan. “It’s a sense of security.”
That sense stays with many campers long after their week has ended.
“We had a student head to college this year, and the first thing they packed was their Camp Noah blanket,” she said.
“We can’t promise a child that they will never go through a difficult situation again, but we can promise that God is always with them. They are never alone.”
Cathy Sullivan, a member of Newtown Congregational Church, volunteered as part of the cooking/feeding team for three days. She, like other local volunteers, did not have much direct interaction with the children. Nevertheless, she noticed an audible difference between the beginning of the week and the end.
“I was so impressed with this camp,” Mrs Sullivan said. “The last day, on my way out, I heard the sound of squealing laughter from the children. To me, it made the entire week worthwhile.”