School violence is an all-too-frequent headline and no prevention measure has yet been found. But camp experiences of being close to nature, participating in wholesome activities, and forming community with others can help children affected by violence heal and learn to trust again. One camp director reached out to the community of Jonesboro, Arkansas, after two young boys from Westside Middle School opened fire on classmates killing four children and a teacher and wounding ten others.
Camp Can Make a Difference
David Gill, a Presbyterian minister and director of Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, recognized that a carefully crafted camp experience could offer a powerful spiritual and healing experience for the children. However, the stunned community had closed ranks trying to protect its own from the onslaught of media and sight-
seers who had rushed to the city following the incident. Gill knew that the community was very wary of help offered by outsiders. "I knew the idea to invite the children to camp would have to come from inside the Jonesboro community," he says.
Making discrete inquiries to Jonesboro clergy, Gill eventually got the support from a school parent who introduced the idea to school officials, the children, and their parents. The response was overwhelming. "We ended up with seventy kids and a few parents," says Gill. Many of these children had been on the playground and some were among those wounded during the shooting.
In the months preceding the camp, Gill gathered his resources for this special effort and formed a planning committee. Key people included a Catholic priest from Jonesboro who was directly involved with the children, a teacher/parent from the school, a Unitarian therapist, and a Presbyterian disaster response consultant. He recruited experienced camp counselors, young men and women capable of working with the special needs of the Jonesboro children. In addition to regular activities, the camp scheduled spiritual reflection time, art, music, and conflict resolution sessions.
Gill contacted artists, musicians, nurses, entertainers, a storyteller, the local astronomy club, and many others who generously volunteered their time for the special camp program and the Jonesboro children. Donations of transportation, backpacks, drink mugs, film, food, and other items came from businesses, and religious organizations provided funding.
Camp Week Arrives
Camp week was a time of learning for everyone. The children played music, ate, cried, created art, wrote letters, formed friendships, hiked in the woods, shared their fears, sang, and laughed in 100-degree heat.
College-aged counselors lived with the campers in bunkhouses, participated in the classes, and set an example of empathy, energy, good humor, enthusiasm, and teamwork. The exceptional caliber of counselors was vital to the success of the camper’s experience.
A Resounding Success
After the program, parents, school officials, and community leaders reported the camp a resounding success and have since formed fund-raising groups to help finance the children’s continued involvement with Ferncliff. Encouraged by the feedback, Gill formed a long-term plan to continue healing, promote leadership training, and eventually, encourage peer support groups.
Gill frequently communicates with the children’s families and has organized several trips for camp staff to visit Jonesboro. Ferncliff sponsored and participated in activities including an open house and a dance for the children during the anniversary of the shooting.
A Spring Break Camp offered more conflict resolution sessions and a field trip for the children to help others (e.g., doing clean-up for Arkansas tornado victims). And, a safely controlled rock-climbing experience taught teamwork and encouraged the children to stretch for their goals. Drama and poetry will be introduced in future camps.
Gill envisions the Jonesboro/Ferncliff partnership continuing for at least four or five years until this group of children graduates from high school. "We hope to build the children’s self-confidence so they can share their story and help other people in similar situations," he says.
"When we created the camp for the Jonesboro kids," Gill says, "it was 75 percent traditional camp but we modified the curriculum to include therapeutic and sensitization activities to promote healing. Since then we’ve learned that all camps can benefit from this approach, and it has enhanced the Ferncliff experience for all the people we serve."
Thanks in part to the Ferncliff Camp, the future holds hope and promise for those children caught in the tragic event at Jonesboro. Gill’s work at Ferncliff has created interest from all over the country, and it may spur development of a national camp to offer healing, promise, and potential for victims of school violence.
Originally published in the 1999 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.