Penn State Berks students help children affected by Hurricane Harvey

Camp Noah participants

Left, seniors Dakota Faust, elementary and early childhood education, and Nicole Brigante, applied psychology, are pictured preparing for the lesson for the fifth-and sixth-grade children.

Credit: Penn State

This summer, 15 Penn State Berks students traveled with their faculty adviser to Orange, Texas, to work with children affected by Hurricane Harvey as part of Camp Noah, a week-long day camp that responds to children touched by community disasters. The Berks team left on July 27, and the camp ran from July 29 through Aug. 2..

During Hurricane Harvey, the Orange County community, which is located one-and-a-half hours east of Houston, received a year’s worth of rainfall from the Category 3 hurricane. Waters from the surrounding bayou rose, washing in alligators and snakes, and washing away belongings and pets, with 75 deaths reported across Texas.

Two years later, the devastating effects can still be felt in the community. Approximately 50 children attended the camp seeking healing from fear, anxiety, and trauma as a result of the rising flood waters that occurred over many days. Children shared their stories of loss and feelings of fear of terror that they experienced during the event.

Penn State Berks students listened as children recounted losing their pets to the flood waters, their fears as they were stranded on rooftops and climbing to the highest point in their homes as the waters rose around them, and evacuating their homes by air boats. Students acted as classroom teachers; as well as art, music, and recreation leaders to facilitate emotional healing throughout the week.

“Through expressions of compassion, empathy, and carefully designed activities, the children experience healing and a renewed sense of community as they come to understand that they are not alone in their experiences. As the children share their stories, they gain a sense of belonging and shared hope, and learn to laugh again. Camp Noah is not therapy, but it is therapeutic,” stated Jayne Leh, associate professor of special education at Penn State Berks and faculty adviser for the trip.

The Penn State Berks students who participated in Camp Noah included applied psychology majors Nicole Brigante and Tyrone Free; rehabilitation and human sciences majors Liz Sanchez Pena and Emily Seisler; and elementary and early childhood education (EECE) majors Hunter Beane, Jacob Conrad, Brooke Eveland, Dakota Faust, Gianna Flail, Vanessa Graham, Kolby Roof, Tessa Simmons and Emylee Watkins, along with recent EECE graduates Jessica Hartman-Molinari and Amber Rogers.

Tessa Simmons, a senior EECE major from Mohnton, commented, “Camp Noah has expanded my perspective on life and children. Before Camp Noah, my interactions with children consisted of a classroom setting, child care, and family. Camp Noah allows children to share their stories, have a voice, and gain resiliency skills. Building so many deep connections with the children in the camp was the personal experience I needed to ingrain the importance of allowing all children to be heard, understood, and truly loved. The connections and bonds you build with children in any situation can be life-changing for you and most importantly, them. 

Jacob Conrad, a senior EECE major from Shoemakersville, added, “Our goal was to help the children open up and begin to move forward after Harvey, and I feel like we did that. My goal as an educator is to help students grow into the best people they can be, to maximize their full potential, to be amazing members of society. The everlasting bond we created with the children is something I will never forget. I will be able to use some ideas and experiences from the camp to help me as an educator work through situations where a student has gone through hardships and may need my help.”

Teams of students and faculty from Penn State Berks have responded to various community disasters over multiple years, from 2012–2016, including flooding in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, and the Sandy Hook School shootings. These efforts have centered around helping children to overcome trauma and fear.

About Camp Noah
Camp Noah is a nationally recognized preparedness and resiliency day camp offered to elementary age children in communities impacted by a disaster or crisis. Camp Noah provides a safe and caring environment where children build resiliency skills within the familiarity of their own communities. They use a proven curriculum designed to help children process their disaster and/or trauma experience through creative activities and play. Camp Noah celebrates every child as special. In this safe and supportive setting, children are encouraged to face their fears, grieve their losses, identify and share their unique gifts and talents, and plan for an amazing future.