More than 30 children attended Camp Noah at the New River YMCA in Jacksonville for five days this past summer. It was just five days, but the Y staff believe that time was life-changing for the children in their care, and they know it was for themselves.
“Camp Noah changes you; it changes how you think and how you look at things. You are never the same after it,” said Katlyn Morin, Program Director for 21st Century Learning at the New River Y. Morin worked closely with the children as Camp Site Director and saw first-hand how children, who have faced various traumas, change and blossom over the course of the week after having the opportunity to be in this special camp’s supportive and healing environment.
Camp Noah is a nationally acclaimed trauma resilience program complete with curriculum and materials provided by the Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota. The vision is to serve disaster and trauma-impacted children by building resilience and restoring hope, according to Jane Schirmer, Executive Director of the Y. Campers are encouraged to face their fears and grieve, identify and share their gifts and talents, and plan for their future.
Bringing Camp Noah to the Community
“Lutheran Social Services had reached out to us and asked us to provide the camp in 2020 for the first time. We did, and it impacted the children so deeply that we asked if we could do it again. They had provided the $25,000 in funding in 2020 to offer the camp and told us if we could raise the funds, we could offer camp again in 2021,” she said. Schirmer said the organization doesn’t typically embed the camp in the same communities repeatedly.
The Y did raise the funds with the support of its Advisory Board member Mike Yaniero, who is also the Jacksonville Director of Public Safety. He was able to access local streams of youth funding to make this year’s camp possible.
“The world has shifted. Prior to COVID, Camp Noah was focused on resiliency around natural disasters, but with COVID, our world has shifted from natural disaster to human disaster,” Schirmer said. Morin said the curriculum was updated somewhat for 2021 in light of COVID and the racial injustices our country is grappling with, and all the camp activities continue to provide children the opportunity to be themselves, to express what they are feeling and to be loved and supported at camp.
Schirmer noted that the community is unlike any other she has served in with the Y. Only 9% of the Y members are over the age of 60. Due to the military presence with Camp Lejeune nearby Y, there a lot of young families. If they aren’t with the military, they work for the city or the county, or in service or blue collar jobs. “There’s very little corporate business here, so our families really struggle.” Schirmer is hoping to be able to offer the camp again; she and her staff know that there will always be children who need this resilience-building and healing opportunity in their community.
Olivia Denson, Social Emotional Learning Coordinator for afterschool programs, who is completing her master’s degree in social work at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, also staffed Camp Noah as Team Leader for Camp Noah and saw how the curriculum positively impacted the kids participating. Each child receives a colorful fleece blanket at the beginning of camp that they can snuggle up with and use for comfort, along with a backpack full of supplies such as paints, markers and crayons and an emergency preparedness kit for them to keep. Activities such as celebrating every child’s birthday on the first day of camp, growing a “wall” Garden of Hope and holding a talent show enable the kids to grow their resiliency throughout the week.
Denson said that a licensed social worker from the Onslow County School District, Miss Donna, also worked at Camp Noah; this is a requirement of Lutheran Social Services in offering the camp. “Miss Donna visited the kids in the classrooms to provide support and do different activities with them at the beginning of the week. That helped build rapport with the kids so that by the end of the week when activities were a little heavier and brought up some feelings or emotions, they were comfortable talking with her when they needed someone,” she said. Camp Noah features a Healing Room, which is a small, comfortable and calm space with a few fidget toys and coloring books, where the children can go if they are having “big feelings” or just need more individual attention and time to talk with Miss Donna, Denson said.
Serving Children in Need
One of this year’s campers, a rising kindergartener, had lost her mother about 5 weeks before she attended Camp Noah. “I’m a firm believer that people come in to our paths for a reason,” Morin said. “Her dad had registered her for traditional camp at the Y, and after staff learned that her mother had passed away recently, we reached out to her dad about Camp Noah and told him we thought it would be good for her to have a fun week to be herself and have an outlet that might be helpful. She is the sweetest little girl, so full of energy and positivity; you would never know she had just lost her mother. But during one of the activities, she was drawing pictures of her family members and they all looked sad. We asked her about it and she was able to talk about her mom and her family’s sadness about her death,” Morin said.
“This is one of the big pieces that makes Camp Noah stand out against other opportunities. All the different activities and the resilience curriculum provided this little girl the chance to express her thoughts and feelings through her drawings. We wouldn’t have known what she was experiencing otherwise,” Denson said.
The Y staff shared the story of two children who participated in the camp in 2020. They had the same last names but were registered separately, so they were put in separate groups for different ages. “On the first day of camp, they saw each other and went running to each other. As it turned out, they were a brother and sister in the foster care system, and through camp, they were able to spend the whole week together. We switched them to be in the same group,” Morin said.
During the 2020 camp, Hurricane Isaias, a category 1 hurricane, was brewing. On the first day of camp, kids received their emergency preparedness kit, and focused on the curriculum theme of “I’m not scared, I’m prepared.” For many kids, the hurricane didn’t have a significant impact, but for a set of twin boys, they lost electricity and part of their roof was torn off.
“They weren’t able to stay in their home after the hurricane, but their mom shared that the boys had their flashlights from their emergency preparedness kits and they told their mom they weren’t scared because they were prepared,” Denson said. She also shared that the boys’ experience and the camp was featured in the local paper; see the article here.
Schirmer said the Y partnered with local schools to identify children to recruit for the camp. Most were referred through the social workers in the schools and principals, and some of the children were in the Y’s traditional summer day camps and before- and after-school programs. “We have had children that experienced trauma through sexual abuse, death of a parent, home instability living in a motel, incarcerated parent, etc.” Schirmer said.
Schirmer and her Advisory Board are exploring whether there might be county mental health funds available to offer this camp again next summer. “Camp Noah is one of the brightest spots in my Y journey of 30+ years,” she said.
YMCAs that are interested in exploring the idea of Camp Noah are welcome to contact Jane Schirmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota at email@example.com or 800-987-0061.