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File photograph showing the damages caused by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 29, 2017. EFE

Summer camp in Reading seeks to bolster long-term recovery for Hurricane Maria evacuees

Camp Noah, run by St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, aims to help 50 children displaced by Hurricanes Irma and Maria heal from their trauma while having fun.

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On Aug. 13 - 17, a summer camp in Reading, PA, will serve 50 children from families who were displaced from Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria and were relocated to Reading, Pa.

Called Camp Noah, run by Liberty Lutheran churches at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Reading, the week-long experience will use a specific curriculum designed by an official best practice long-term recovery format that has been used around the country for children who have survived disasters.

The content of the curriculum is “implicitly therapeutic,” said Julia Menzo, co-chair of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and director of community outreach at Liberty Lutheran, as it is designed to foster “resilience skills" and build disaster-preparedness, in addition to providing “an opportunity for kids just to be themselves.”

“They’re given ways to deal with the trauma that they don’t even realize that they’re facing,” said Pastor Katie Lyons of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of the camp format. “The camp is a way for them to be able to process that in a healthy way.”

As the mental health coordinator at Camp Noah, Lyons said that she will watch for any issues the kids might be having, and will work to connect students to the resources they need even after the camp ends so that “when they leave there they’ll get the help that they need.”

Those attending camp are all from evacuee families in Reading, Pa., located in Berks County, which along with Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia region has been the destination for a large number of evacuees. Menzo said that the Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee (GPLTRC), a coalition of organizations that formed to address the long term needs of Hurricane Maria evacuees and is hosted by the local VOAD, would be interested in trying to do a similar camp in Philadelphia next year.

While “designed to be fun,” Menzo said that the camp includes features to meet the specific criteria of the curriculum, including having a mental health provider available on staff at the camp at all times. Organizers are also working to ensure that 50 percent of the camp staff is bilingual.

“I’m really thrilled the churches in Reading took this on themselves to host it,” said Menzo, although she noted that it is just one of many next steps that must be taken by agencies and communities as a whole in the Greater Philadelphia area and across Pennsylvania to ensure that the families that were displaced by one of the worst natural disasters in Puerto Rico’s history are able to continue to rebuild their lives in order to not just survive, but thrive in their new homes.

The road to long term recovery

Approximately 900 families landed in the Greater Philadelphia region after the devastating hurricane, but even those who were able to benefit from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Transitional Shelter Assistance program and received housing vouchers for hotels and apartments had to endure several deadlines and subsequent court-ordered extensions in the nearly 11 months since Hurricane Maria.

The latest deadline, July 23, has now come and gone. But for many displaced Puerto Rican families, the need for support continues. According to Menzo, as of July 20 there were more than 20 families across the state who were still relying on TSA sponsorship.

In Philadelphia, many evacuees of Maria have moved in with family or are in the process of getting an apartment. The Philadelphia Housing Authority provided support to some of the TSA families and 30 other families they’ve been working with through their designated “super preference” program for survivors of disaster, which Menzo said has been “hugely helpful.”

Through their relationship with FEMA, Menzo and others working with VOAD and in the Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee were able to contact people via FEMA registration IDs by phone and email, and were also able to offer support to some families through the city's Office of Emergency and Disaster support center and through the public library branches.

According to anecdotal evidence from information provided by case managers, Menzo said that most evacuees now in the state plan to stay in Pennsylvania.

“I’d say only 10 percent really have any interest or expect to go back...People may want to go back but they don’t have a place to go to, schools haven’t been repaired, they’re worried about another hurricane hitting,” said Menzo, adding that the fact that the island’s economy was bad even before the storm contributes to most Puerto Rican evacuees’ belief that they will have more opportunities here on the mainland.

But finding and cultivating those opportunities is another hurdle.

English language skills are key for helping displaced Puerto Ricans find jobs, gain financial security and a sustainable income, which then allows them to secure housing — the “three continuing needs,” Menzo noted, that the GPLTRC plans to address.

Menzo noted that Camp Noah represents one of the ways in which Liberty Lutheran and the GPLTRC are hoping to address the “spiritual and emotional” component to recovery.

Children have been forced to move a number of times, and the entire families have dealt with the uncertainty around the TSA deadline.

It is, said Menzo, an “up and down roller coaster that families and kids have been on the past year, and we know that has a psychological component.”

Menzo noted that the group hopes to organize fun events and resources that also would include the option for seeking support from mental health providers and others, so that if people want to talk about it, they can.

The positive outcome of the local recovery efforts for Menzo has been what she sees as a “remarkable” effort made to support evacuees not just in Philadelphia but across the state, highlighting the ways in which the Hispanic community and the traditional disaster response community have worked together.

“It’s been good for the health of Pennsylvania that we’re getting to know our neighbors together and working together,” Menzo said. 

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