Camp for children traumatized by natural disasters provides space for healing

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RENO, Nevada – When the Caldor fire hit California’s South Lake Tahoe, Melissa Benavidez and her family knew it was time to go.

Her husband, a municipal firefighter, urged Benavidez to pack their three children and get to safety while he remained there to work 12-hour shifts. Benavidez, a teacher, tried to make the experience fun for her family. They headed south to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and visited relatives in the San Joaquin Valley.

Despite his best efforts, the children of Benavidez felt the stress of displacement and the uncertainty.

“They acted a lot – constantly fighting, a lot of mental and emotional depressions,” she said. “They are ready to return to some normalcy.”

Relief for the Benavidez family came about nine days after the evacuation began when a friend told them about a free, pop-up day camp created for children displaced by the Dixie and Caldor fires.

For nearly two weeks in September, Project: Camp made its home at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno, just over an hour’s drive from South Lake Tahoe.

The camp hosted dozens of children aged 6 to 16, encouraging them to climb a two-story jungle, splash around a model of the local Truckee River, and explore the galaxy through an exhibit developed in collaboration with the NASA. He also matched the children with volunteer counselors trained in trauma-informed care, who were ready to deal with emotional outbursts and help the children cope with the stress of evacuating or losing their home.

And it gave parents a much-needed respite during the day, providing a space to contact insurance companies, stay up to date on evacuation orders, and deal with their own anxiety.

Monika Jaworska plays with campers at the Discovery Museum in Reno, Nevada on September 8, 2021.Jim Seida / NBC News
Children displaced by the Caldor fire play in a glider at the Discovery Museum.Jim Seida / NBC News
A child plays with a giant Scrabble board at the Discovery Museum.Jim Seida / NBC News

“I didn’t have a lot of free time, but now I was able to be alone and experience my own emotions,” said Lindsey Simon, whose 8-year-old son spent a week at camp.

“When they’re in a setting like this, he gets tired at the end of the day so he’s calmer at home,” she added. “Otherwise it’s just chaos and it’s no fun.

Natural disasters affect some 175 million children around the world each year, causing lasting consequences that can include anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. Chronic mental health problems have been observed in children up to four years after a major disaster, according to a 2015 study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry which examined the long-term effects of hurricanes and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.

Prolonged or repeated exposure to natural disasters, such as forest fires, hurricanes, floods and even drought and heat waves, can also affect a child’s learning ability. According to research published by the Society for Research in Child Development, trauma can alter the anatomy and function of a child’s brain, making learning, memory and concentration more difficult for young people.

“We know that children are one of the most vulnerable populations when they experience natural disasters,” said Betty Lai, professor of counseling, developmental and educational psychology at Boston College. “They really depend on adults to help them get through these situations, but they also have less experience understanding what it means when your world is turned upside down.”

Each child reacts differently to traumatic events. Where one can act for days or weeks, another can bounce back almost immediately. The difference often comes down to past experiences and how parents deal with their own stress, according to Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Traumatic Stress in Children.

“It is not about the numbers, but about the gravity and intensity of the events,” she said. “A child will be more affected if he loses his home or a loved one.”

This year, with dozens of wildfires raging alongside hurricanes, heat waves and the Covid-19 pandemic, families are forced to deal with several traumatic events simultaneously. Having a plan and sharing those preparations can help parents and children deal with the initial shock of suddenly being moved, Brymer said.

“Encourage the children to pack their belongings so they have comforting items,” she said. “Young children feed on their parents, and if parents do well in a disaster, it will help children cope. “

Giving parents and children the space to be themselves is one of the goals of Project: Camp, according to its founder.

Children displaced by the Caldor fire eat lunch at the Discovery Museum.Jim Seida / NBC News
Henry Meier with Project: Camp reads a book to campers at the Discovery Museum.Jim Seida / NBC News

It first appeared in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which killed 68 people and caused damage estimated at $ 125 billion. The hurricane forced the closure of daycare programs and camps across the region, exacerbating emergencies for parents who desperately needed help with their children and time to figure out what to do next amid a disaster. two weeks.

Mikey Latner, Founder and Executive Director of Project: Camp, was part of a national network of camps when Hurricane Harvey struck. When colleagues in Texas sounded an alert asking for help for children displaced by the hurricane, Latner flew from California to Texas to handle logistics at a pop-up camp in Houston.

During this hurricane, Latner helped feed some 350 children. The experience stuck with him, leading to a similar but smaller camp several months later in the Tubbs fire in Northern California, and then again in 2018 in the Woolsey fire in Southern California.

Latner hopes to eventually make Project: Camp National in order to organize sessions in the days following a natural disaster.

Project: The camp held three sessions in northern California and Nevada this year during the historic wildfire season in the West, which consumed more than 3 million hectares in a dozen states.

“The camp is a healing space,” he said. “They show up at the start of the day calm and reserved, and at the end of the day it’s actually hard to take them off. They want to be with their friends.

Children displaced by the Caldor fire play inside the “Cloud Climber” at the Discovery Museum.Jim Seida / NBC News

Project: Camp counselors do not engage children in discussing their trauma, but rather allow them to explore feelings that might arise throughout the day. Each session includes a “circle of gratitude,” where children are invited to give thanks. The responses range from mild to revealing.

During a session earlier this summer, a boy said he was grateful for his house, then suddenly burst into tears. While the firefighters managed to save the camper’s house from the fire at the Beckwourth complex, other children lost theirs. The camper was filled with sadness and guilt after realizing that his friends had not been spared.

“We don’t break up moments like this, but we try to facilitate a sensitive environment,” said David Baron, communications director for Project: Camp. “Children are naturally very good at it.”


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