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Exploring the effects of water on Central Florida and urgent calls to address policy and other barriers to change as we prepare for a supercharged upcoming storm season.

Seminole County one of Florida's first to bring kids trauma-informed camp after hurricanes

Kids make paper birds at Project:Camp in Oviedo, Florida.
Danielle Prieur
Kids make paper birds at Project:Camp in Oviedo, Florida.

A pilot program for a special camp in Central Florida

A pilot program for a new camp debuted this March at the YMCA in Oviedo.

On the last day, kids decorated paper birds, and built boats out of recycled materials.

The camp might sound like any other but it’s not.

At this camp, the first of its kind in Central Florida, all the kids were Hurricane Ian survivors, and they all experienced major damage to their homes. Fifth grader Zamyrah Cruz said she was terrified.

Zamyrah Cruz and mom Chala Barrington-Cruz at the Y.
Danielle Prieur
Zamyrah Cruz and mom Chala Barrington-Cruz at the Y.

“Our backyard got flooded. And like a ten-foot tall tree fell on a RV. But it didn’t hurt anybody. Thank goodness and our pool was high,” Cruz said.

Zamyrah’s mom Chala also recounted that tree falling on their neighbor’s home. By the way, Chala says it was actually closer to 20 feet tall and trapped their neighbor inside the RV.

“And I look over and I'm watching the tree fall into her house and I'm yelling for her. Mindy, Mindy, are you okay,” she said.

Chala says if Ian was scary for her, she can only imagine the impact on Zamyrah.

The very real problem of childhood trauma after storms

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, primary school-aged kids are at the highest risk for mental health problems after a storm.

Some kids will have trouble sleeping, or lash out at school or home. Others will develop depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The CDC says this storm-related stress can be harder on kids for three reasons: they understand less about what’s happening during a storm, they feel less in control of their lives during and after a storm, and they have less experience coping with challenges like hurricanes.

This stress can be compounded in children who have already experienced other types of trauma like abuse in the home, or homelessness.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that more than two-thirds of children experienced at least one traumatic event by the time they turn 16 years-old.

If left untreated, childhood trauma can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, substance and alcohol abuse, poor academic performance, and more time spent in the juvenile justice system.

The good news? There’s lots of ways to help someone thrive and survive a childhood marked by trauma, and to help them heal.

Kids who can find a sense of purpose, social connections and develop strong problem-solving skills can all build resilience. That’s where Project:Camp comes in.

Project:Camp to the rescue in Central Florida

Project:Camp has been running programs across the country, following natural disasters for almost half a decade. Most recently they were in Maui after the fires there in 2023.

Henry Meier is with the organization. He said the pilot program in Seminole County this March was a dry-run in preparation for the real thing this hurricane season.

“If the storm were to hit Seminole County, we can pop up a camp in about 48 hours. We have supplies all built out, we've worked with the Seminole County Office of Emergency Management, we've worked with the YMCA of Central Florida, to have all the things we need in place to pop up a trauma-informed camp in 48 hours,” Meier said.

A whiteboard at Project:Camp in Oviedo, Florida.
Danielle Prieur
A whiteboard at Project:Camp in Oviedo, Florida.

Meier said now that the groundwork has been laid, there won’t be any delays, even if a hurricane were to close airports and his staff couldn’t get to Florida for a few days.

“We've done a lot of that work ahead of time to kind of identify potential sites, have those counselors trained up, have all the supplies ready so that when a storm hits we can be set up in that very short window of time,” Meier said.

He said early intervention is key to better outcomes in kids after storms.

“And we have a program that really helps them kind of process through play, process with their peers, kids process these events very differently than adults do,” Meier said.

So what does a Project:Camp program look like?

Meier said a Project:Camp program is flexible by design, with certain elements that are a part of every camp, no matter the site.

“I mean, there are some pillars to it, like we have some of the trauma-informed programming that we do. We do gratitude circles, where we have a little granite turtle that we pass around, and kids get to share something that they're grateful for. It helps them kind of reframe their mindset from being a victim, to also being able to see things that are good in their community, good in their lives,” Meier said.

A camp counselor helps kids make paper birds.
Danielle Prieur
A camp counselor helps kids make paper birds.

Then, Meier said the rest of the camp is dictated by where the site is located, and what resources are accessible and available post-storm.

“So we've run camps at children's science museums before, so they've had access to amazing learning tools. And we've done a lot of science experiments with them. We've done camps in just a field before. And so we did a lot of sort of more outdoor games in those scenarios,” Meier said.

At the pilot camp in Oviedo in March, kids participated in gratitude circles, but also had weekly check-ins and got a visit from therapy dogs. They also did STEM and art projects, and watched movies. A good balance of hard work and just being kids.

An emergency manager and a tornado

Seminole County Emergency Manager Alan Harris, who brought Project:Camp to the county, said he’s blown away by what he saw in Oviedo in March.

He said every year he sees what happens to young people who don’t or can’t get the help they need after a storm.

“They can cope with it through alcohol and addiction issues. And they can cope with it medically, physically feeling the effects of these. And we've seen this disaster after disaster after disaster,” Harris said.

Seminole County Emergency Manager Alan Harris.
Danielle Prieur
Seminole County Emergency Manager Alan Harris.

Harris said the majority of kids will have pretty bad storm-related anxiety.

“When a tornado happens, and in 1998 when we experienced the tornadoes here in Seminole County, which was the worst tornado outbreak in the state of Florida history, the next year, even just a normal storm, youth were reporting back to teachers and counselors that they were scared of just the storm, there was no tornado attached to it,” Harris said.

Growing up in Gainesville, Harris said he lived through a tornado that shook up his young life and sense of security.

“And we had a small tornado in Gainesville, during that time, but I remember very clearly our family in the interior room as the winds blew, and that you heard the train sound and all of that stuff. So very traumatizing to us, us three children,” Harris said.

It was clear to Harris not only from his own experience, but also that of an emergency manager that more needed to be done to address kids’ mental health after a storm.

“After Hurricane Irma, we identified that there were some mental health issues, trauma issues related to youth and we had identified a gap. But we really weren't sure how to fill that gap. While I was at the National Hurricane Conference in 2023, I was introduced to Project:Camp and I knew that I wanted to bring that camp here to Seminole County in the Central Florida area,” Harris said.

After observing just a week of camp at the Y in Oviedo, he’s glad he did.

“And just to see their faces after that, coming in a little bit scared on Monday, leaving on Friday with laughter and joy,” Harris said. “That's what I want after a disaster.”

The camp difference

Rollins College Psychology Professor Sharon Carnahan, who specializes in early childhood development, said programs like Project:Camp work because they give kids space to talk about their feelings, and learn how to process them.

“Well, first of all, we have to recognize that if something's happening in the adult world, children know about it, they overhear a conversation, see snippets, they watch, the scary clouds go by, they see flooded roads. And when we don't talk about it, children make up their own understandings of what they're seeing around them,” Carnahan said.

Rollins College Psychology Professor Sharon Carnahan.
Danielle Prieur
Rollins College Psychology Professor Sharon Carnahan.

Carnahan said some of these child-like interpretations of events can be much scarier than real life.

“Children may really feel responsible for some of the things they see, they may feel responsible for their fears, or for upsetting the adults around them. So, we need to talk with children to make sure they understand what's really happening. And we need to remember that children know, we can't shield them completely from the things that are going on in the grown-ups' lives,” Carnahan said.

She said of all the skills we should be teaching our children, resiliency is at the top of the list.

“Resiliency is recognizing the good things that we have in our lives, but it's also the skills we learn in order to cope with difficulty. Communication and support for feelings in young children is money in the bank when it comes to helping them deal with the storms of life in the future,” Carnahan said.

Chrissy Hoffman of the YMCA of Central Florida will help run the program this season.

She said kids and their mental health after a storm should be a priority for every county in Florida, and she hopes more counties here consider Project:Camp or something like it.

“So camp is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a kid and even when it's a day camp that's here, camp is just magic. And so when kids come here, they feel a sense of community with other kids that they may have never met before. But this camp specifically is designed very much for kids, it's for them. And so they feel like they are important. They feel like they matter. And that's something that they can take with them long after this camp is over,” Hoffman said.

Chrissy Hoffman of the YMCA of Central Florida.
Danielle Prieur
Chrissy Hoffman of the YMCA of Central Florida.

Hoffman said she’s so grateful to provide this service in her community. Although it won’t be the first time she’s stepped up to help after a storm.

“And what we were really proud to do after Hurricane Ian, and at the time we were not participating with Project:Camp, is being able to be a safe place for people. We had electricity. So we could have members, and even non-members in the community just come in and take a shower and use our chargers and all of that just so they could have a place to just kind of check in and reset if needed,” Hoffman said.

Another hurricane season, another camp

Back at the Y, fifth grader Zamyrah Cruz says she’s excited for the next group of kids to experience the camp, although she’s not particularly hoping for another hurricane.

A camp counselor helps Zamyrah and friends build boats.
Danielle Prieur
A camp counselor helps Zamyrah and friends build boats.

“I would tell them, it's a really good experience. And I would probably tell them, it's oh my goodness, you would have a great time. I got to meet a lot of friends and you will too,” Cruz said.

The cost of the camps will be covered by the American Red Cross, Seminole County and YMCA. Families will find out about the camp if they use a county-run shelter.

Here are some resources that families can use after a hurricane:

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.
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