Camping Is Your Gift to the World: How your camp is touched by September 11th...and what to do about it

by Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D.

September 11th, 2001, was catastrophic. But on that day of mass murder and destruction, camps took a quantum leap in importance. Never before has it been so essential to provide safe, nurturing environments in which children can learn, grow, and make friends. Originally conceived as sanctuaries from the depravity of cities, camps have become much more than that. Camping professionals have long recognized the broader purpose of camps. And now, perhaps no single event in history has left so many wondering: How will September 11th affect life at my camp? At the end of this year, each of us will begin answering that question. But now, at the start of a new year, each of us needs to decide how to proceed. Here are some ideas that can guide your thinking about parents, children, staff, and yourself as you continue implementing your camp's response to this horrific violence and the war that has ensued.

Comfort in Connection

Immediately following the terrorist attacks, most of us did the same thing - we connected with people. We e-mailed, called, visited, and otherwise made contact with our friends and families, including our camp families. A few were grieved to learn that friends or family were wounded or missing. Camps began posting updates on their Web sites to inform current campers and staff, as well as alumni, how everyone was doing. More supportive e-mails, phone calls, and visits ensued.

Camps also sent out letters, e-mails, and posted advice on how to talk with children about tragedy and loss. By now, most children and adults have processed the initial trauma of the terrorist attacks and their associated losses, but if any member of your camp family still wants advice on how to cope with traumatic events or how to talk with children about tragedy, visit ACAcamps.org . There, you will find links to expert advice from venerable organizations like the American Psychological Association. One of the take-home messages from this site is to remember that people grieve at different speeds and in different ways. Everyone will have different concerns. Let's look at some of the most common camp-related concerns that might develop, and what to do about them.

Parents' Concerns

Some questions and concerns that you should anticipate from parents include:

  • Is this the right time to separate from my child?
  • Will we be able to cope with the separation?
  • Has the camp changed its policies regarding parents' contact with their children?
  • Is camp a safe place? Is it protected from intruders?
  • What is the quality of the camp's health center? How are sick kids treated?
  • How do you store guns and bows? What are children taught about weapons?
  • Is your staff trained to help kids grieve if they've lost someone?

You should anticipate these and other questions from your camp parents and begin thinking about how to respond. Generally speaking, you should stick with policies that have worked in the past. The more camp is perceived to be stable, the more comforting it will be. Change only what you feel is absolutely necessary or ethical. Also, advise parents to follow their children's lead. If the child expresses enthusiasm about coming to camp, she's probably ready. As for safety issues, be prepared to offer more reassurance this year than last. And if any of your safety policies or equipment need upgrading, do it before any campers arrive.

Remember that the events of September 11th have affected some adults much more than they have affected some children. Don't assume that whenever parents are upset, so are their children. You will also encounter diverse viewpoints on how the United States is responding to terrorism. Be a good listener. Also, because different parents will have told their children different things about the terrorist attacks, campers will have different knowledge sets and different reactions to what happened. Work to correct any serious misconceptions and train your staff to empathize with their campers' differing opinions. It is crucial for adults in your camp to model tolerance of others' views.

Campers' Concerns

We think of children as vulnerable, which they are, in many ways. But children are also resilient - often more resilient than adults. Although terrorist attacks on our home soil have made us all feel more vulnerable, we must remember that children see the world in simpler, more immediate terms than adults. That simplified vision of the world may actually help younger campers cope. As you prepare your staff to work with children this season, keep these points in mind:

  • Different children were touched in different ways by the attacks. Some will want to play out violent or rescue fantasies; others will feel vulnerable and act withdrawn. Staff must be sensitive to different children's backgrounds and coping styles.
     
  • Children will come to camp with a variety of biases, stereotypes, and understandings. Don't get angry if they say something prejudiced or factually incorrect. Instead, help them see things from a balanced and fair point of view. But beware of forcing them to adopt your own view. Instead, ask open-ended questions about alternative viewpoints.
     
  • Give children opportunities to express how they feel. If terrorism themes emerge in cabin discussion or artwork, support that expression without dwelling on it excessively. Ask children questions about how they are feeling and say how you feel about being at camp.
     
  • Be sensitive to developmental differences in children's understanding of death and its permanence, of numbers and their magnitude, and of good and evil. Avoid ridiculing any comments that might seem simplistic or inane to adults.
     
  • Be sensitive to developmental differences in children's understanding of war. Some seven- or eight-year-olds at your camp may still want to play "gunner" games with a broomstick. That is a developmentally normative behavior. By contrast, some sixteen-year-old campers will be less than two years away from having to register for military service. They will see the world differently and may not be so eager (or may be more eager) to play-act violence.
     
  • Remember that children grieve and cope in different ways and at different speeds. Some will feel perfectly safe at camp; others will experience normative homesickness. A few children will be feeling extra vulnerable, anxious being away from their parents, or unsafe in a new environment. Reassure them, help them make friends, and get them involved in the rhythm of camp life.

Many staff will, out of their natural human sensibilities, be able to support and reassure children who still have questions or concerns. However, it will be worthwhile to spend extra time during staff training week discussing what to expect and how to best handle children's reactions. Above all, be truthful with children. They quickly sense fabrications and when they do, they feel unsafe.

Be responsive to any camper who exhibits significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress. These can include severely disorganized or agitated behavior, flashbacks, repetitive play expressing traumatic themes, frightening dreams and other sleep disturbances, intense distress when reminded of the traumatic event, extreme withdrawal, outbursts of anger, and an exaggerated startle response. Contact the parents of any child about whom you are seriously concerned and suggest the possibility of a professional evaluation.

Staff Concerns

Cabin leaders and other staff will have - as they always do - the awesome responsibility of caring for the children who attend your camp. Some may have a strange feeling that there is nothing they can really do to protect their campers; others may display an exaggerated desire to keep kids safe and show them a good time no matter what. Ideally, your staff will be somewhere between these extremes of feeling helpless or overprotective. You may need to coach them a bit to achieve this happy medium. In addition, consider these points:

  • Staff may be at a loss for how to talk with kids about how they feel, especially how they feel about attacks on the United States. Foreign staff may lend an interesting perspective, but may feel at an even greater loss. Download advice on talking with children of different ages from the APA Web site (www.apa.org/psychnet/coverage.html) and from the Talk with Your Kids Web site (www.talkingwithkids.org/index.html).
     
  • During staff training, role-play conversations that might pop up between campers and their cabin leaders or activity leaders. Discuss your camp's policy for responding to campers who express racist beliefs or violent fantasies. Role-play how that policy is implemented.
     
  • Staff, too, may need factual information about terrorism, religious beliefs, history, military action, rescue efforts, biological warfare and the like. Of course, no one has all the answers, but if you detect false information being disseminated by one of your staff, work to educate him or her.
     
  • Many adults, including your staff, will be thirsty for information. Before the season starts, develop a media policy that specifies when staff can watch television or access the Internet to get caught up on current events or watch a new crisis unfold. At a minimum, be sure that newspapers are available in staff lounges.
     
  • Like children, all adults have been affected by these horrendous acts of violence and the ongoing war. Many need outlets for expression. Keep a special eye on staff members who were most directly involved in the attacks or who have family and friends in the military and be sure they are getting the support they need to do a good job and stay healthy. Be sure everyone has adequate time off and facilitate contact with home.
     
  • Talk with your staff about appropriate ways to express their feelings and share news in front of campers. (This is always a good idea, anyway.) How will references to terrorism, victims of terrorism, and war be tastefully integrated into vespers and chapel services, blessings, prayers, and the like? What about informal bedtime discussions? Anxiety can be contagious, so advise staff not to share strong fears and worries with campers.
     
  • Caution your staff against skits, jokes, and other all-camp activities that have tragic, violent, or racist themes. Of course, humor is an important way to deal with anxiety, but in a mixed-age group of people who have been touched in different ways by a disaster and war, it is impossible to know how everyone will perceive well-intended humor. Encourage your staff to save tasteful humor about these events for small groups of peers they know well.

Directors' Concerns

One of the strongest feelings many camp directors have is to put the tragic events of September 11th behind us. In many ways, that is how we all feel. At the same time, we recognize that these events and the ongoing world conflicts have forever transformed how we think about ourselves and the world. Military, diplomatic, and social happenings after September 11th and even since this article was submitted, continue to transform our thinking. Perhaps the best course is for each of us to work toward positive change in the world and hope that peace will reign. Making this the best camping season ever is one way to promote that peace and positive change. Take whatever desire you have to move on and channel it toward making your camp the best it can be. As you work toward that goal, remember:

  • It is normal to think about tragedy befalling your camp. Although it is extraordinarily unlikely that anything bad will happen, know that it is normal for those in a position of responsibility to question the safety of their program after any major disaster. Take some of that nervous energy and refine the common sense safety features of your camp, such as PFDs, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, and the use of helmets.
     
  • It is also normal to want to reassure parents, campers, and staff. They will be looking for some of that reassurance from you, considering your position. But more than just reassuring them that camp is a safe place, talk with people about making the fabric of your camp community strong and about cultivating peace and understanding.
     
  • You are likely to hear more about revenge in the coming months. Revenge, of course, has never been a camp concept, not even in the keenest competition. Instead, camps help children look beyond simplistic revenge and engage in the more complex work of learning how to get along. Do whatever you can to quash prejudice and promote understanding among your camp family. Compassion and inclusion - the behaviors you are modeling - are the antidotes to misunderstanding and marginalization, which are the very causes of terrorism itself.
     
  • Get together with some of your senior staff and plan an in-camp service to honor anyone in your camp family who died on September 11th. Although immensely sad, it will be educational and comforting for your campers to see how adults grieve a major loss. This is also a time to celebrate the enduring strength of your camp family and appreciate the bonds you share with one another.
     
  • Talk with other camp directors about their feelings, ways of coping, and approaches toward parents, campers, and staff. There is much wisdom in our group experience, so take advantage of camping conferences, online chats, and visits to neighboring camps. As you are with children, be truthful with your peers.
     
  • Take care of yourself. In your wholehearted efforts to comfort and reassure others, to be sensitive to others' needs, and to provide what others want, take time to recharge. You will be in much better shape to do a good job when you are focused and cheerful. So get enough rest, do some aerobic exercise every day, eat right, and all that great stuff. Really.

Why are camps more essential than ever? Because not only do camps give kids a world of good, camps give the world good kids - something the whole world needs.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a licensed clinical psychologist, camp consultant, and the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook, available from the ACA Bookstore or Amazon.com. For questions about this article, or to inquire about staff training on this or other topics, send e-mail to chris@campspirit.com. You are welcome to reproduce and distribute this article to your camp family.

Originally published in the 2002 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

Tags: