MOORE — When storm sirens began to wail, Gracie Jackson joined in.
On May 22, 2011, the 12-year-old was sitting in a Joplin church when an EF5 tornado sent the roof crashing down on her and others seeking shelter in the building’s library
This week, Gracie and her mother, Nancy Northup, traveled from Missouri to the Moore First United Methodist Church to volunteer as group counselors at Camp Noah. The mission of the week-long day camp is to provide resiliency skills to elementary-age children affected by disaster.
Gracie said she benefited so much from attending Camp Noah when it came to Joplin that she knew she wanted to pay it forward to other children.
After Gracie climbed from the wreckage in Joplin, she thought she’d escaped with only minor injuries. The storm was over. She was safe. But just days later, when another storm with a potential for tornadoes popped up, the psychological damage became apparent.
“I was flipping out and crying because I was so scared it was all going to happen again,” she said. “Even after I knew we were OK, I was still anxious.”
Camp Noah, which is operated by the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, came to Joplin, and Northup signed her daughter up. There, Gracie shared her tornado story and listened to others tell their stories, something experts say helps build resiliency in children.
Camp Noah also provides children with backpacks filled with a first-aid kit, flashlight, coloring book, playing cards, water bottle and emergency food. Campers also learn breathing techniques to keep calm during a storm.
Now, when a storm is coming near, Gracie gets her bag, blanket and dog ready to go in case they need to take cover. Doing so helps her mentally prepare for a storm.
“Even though she had those fears, she was able to cope with it,” Northup said. “Just having a plan and knowing what to do has helped her tremendously.”
Camp Noah got its start 16 years ago after the flooding of the Red River Valley between North Dakota and Minnesota. Since then, the camp has been hosted in 26 states and Puerto Rico and has had more than 10,000 campers.
After seeing the devastation in Moore last May, program manager Maryn Olson said she saw the need for the organization to respond to help a new group of kids.
“Somebody is always there to come in and help rebuild your home,” she said. “But sometimes we need somebody to listen to us and reassure us.”
One of the lasting impacts of the camp is the discussion between students, Olson said. When children are able to open up to each other and share their storm stories, it helps them understand that they aren’t alone and that they are safe.
The camp tries to use activities to help campers express themselves. At the church this week, campers were asked to draw something for a memorial wall they created to illustrate what they felt they lost during the storms. Many of the children drew pictures of Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementaries. Others shared notes about houses and pets and children lost.
“It gives them the opportunity to express themselves,” Olson said. “From there we see them start to open up, and then they’ll listen and comfort each other.”
Thursday marked the first day of spring and the unofficial start of storm season in Oklahoma. Gracie Jackson believes her newest campers are prepared.
“I just want them to feel safe,” she said. “We don’t want them to feel afraid.”