By David Miller
A massive tornado ripped through Vilonia, Ark.,on April 25, 2011. Months later shattered homes litter the rolling green hills of this rural community 40 minutes north of Little Rock, Ark..
Steel frames from dozens of mobile homes rust in road ditches, looking like so many giant pretzels. Rows of twisted trees, their jagged shards pointing skyward, bear silent witness to the town’s tragedy and will for years to come.
Less apparent are the emotional wounds of those who continue to pick up the pieces. This is especially true of children whose voices get drowned out by urgent cries to clean up the mess, rebuild and put a broken community back on its feet.
Forty-nine of those children found their voice with the help of a 16-member Camp Noah team St. Timothy Lutheran Church an ELCA congregation in Naperville, Ill., sent to Vilonia during the first week of August.
Camp Noah is a program of Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, created in 1997 in the wake of massive flooding along the Red River that flows between Minnesota and North Dakota.
Discover they are not alone
The five-day camp helps children, grades one through six, tell their stories, name their fears and discover they are not alone. They also uncover strengths and graces that appear in the wake of the storm, which renews hope for a future beyond their fears and memories.
The curriculum tells the Noah story through skits and puppets, utilizing diverse musical, artistic and storytelling techniques to move students through the biblical flood story to discover that as Noah survived and thrived, so can they.
Take Cyeth, for example. A wave of recognition crossed his face as fellow fifth and sixth graders from Vilonia shared their storm stories and drew them on posters. “I felt that, too,” he said. “It felt unreal, like it wasn’t happening. Then it was,” his voice drifted off. Other heads nodded as the group realized they could share their fears and their experiences would be respected.
Cyeth described emerging from his destroyed home and seeing the bodies of two neighbors who took shelter in a storage pod, only to be drowned when the tornado swept the pod into a pond.
Other campers described what it is like to lose everything they owned — or pets and precious items. Others, displaced from their homes, worry about whether they can return to their school and friends because their families had to find shelter in nearby communities.
Family relationships strained
As in other disasters, Vilonia’s tragedy further strained personal and family struggles present long before the storm. On the last day of camp, Susie Merrihew, a mental health professional on St. Timothy’s team, encountered a mother who had attempted suicide the night before. In another classroom, a young girl resisted her teacher’s encouragement to share her hopes and dreams. Her dreams were “all bad,” she said. Camp staff soon discovered she had been abused.
The responses of most Camp Noah participants to the storm were more predictable but also troubling. After a natural disaster, children become more anxious and clingy. “Almost all of them will have some kind of response to rain, thunderstorms, lightning, any sudden change in the weather,” Merrihew said.
“To be able to recognize that this is what it feels like in my stomach and this is how I name it is our ultimate goal for them. The sooner they can talk about their stories, and the more they can talk about their stories, the better their long-term recovery.”
St. Timothy’s team was one of several trained each year by national Camp Noah staff and sent to affected communities, which handle local arrangements for the visiting teams. In Vilonia, the ecumenical camp was hosted by Center Point Freewill Baptist Church. Area ELCA congregations, as well as those of other denominations, joined with Vilonia’s disaster recovery alliance to provide meals for the children and lodging for St. Timothy’s team.
This is the third year St. Timothy sent a Camp Noah team. In 2006, a team went to Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Katrina. In 2010 the congregation sent a team to Dwight, Ill., following a tornado.
As in previous years, St. Timothy’s team planted seeds of recovery whose fruit they will not see. But the loving appreciation of the community and the joy of giving anxious children a word of hope is reward enough.