“A mí tambien”: Torie Miele working with Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria survivors at Camp Noah

It has been said that play is the language of children. I decided to put this concept, partnered with my basic Spanish skills, to the ultimate test by volunteering at Camp Noah, a day camp designed to provide support and preparation to children who have experienced a disaster. This week’s camp was focused on children from Puerto Rico who were affected by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and had relocated to Reading, PA. Each day we would begin as a large group with breakfast, music, and skits with our daily lessons. We would then break into our small group time, followed by arts and crafts and recreation. Camp Noah’s curriculum encourages children to share their stories and learn new coping strategies to be prepared for the future. It used journaling, art prompts, and children’s books to encourage emotional expression and peer to peer sharing in an atmosphere of acceptance and safety. This session was the first time the camp was being offered in both Spanish and English, with many children only speaking Spanish and the staff being mostly English speaking volunteers. A few fluent speakers were very helpful in translating the skits and books, while the smiles and dancing were easily understood by all.

I partnered with a fellow child life specialist and two high school students who were native Spanish speakers to lead a small group of 8 children aged 5 through 8 years old. In our small groups, we drew pictures of the good and bad in our lives, made posters displaying who we were and made us special, and created playdough depictions of how we would help the world with our talents. My favorite exercise was when we did a guided imagery journey to visit our safe place and got the opportunity to draw it afterwards. One little boy drew a world of candy while another girl drew her home and family all together in Puerto Rico.

Jerry (name changed) was a 6 year old in our group. He was small and very playful, with a habit of playing with the volunteers’ long hair. He spoke in excited bursts, eager to share and make others laugh. He would pull me down beside him on his blanket and show me his pictures, always in red, featuring sad faces and crosses. Jerry told me about the fire which burned the roof of his grandmother’s house and the car that crashed into his church. His safe place drawer featured shower heads which washed you clean before you could enter. Jerry wasn’t looking for sympathy or even for me to comfort him. He simply wanted to share and be heard. When another boy said “ A mí tambien” Jerry’s face lit up. “ A mí tambien” means “Me too.”

This camp taught these children many valuable lessons. It taught them that bad things happen sometimes, and even though we can’t stop them, we can be prepared. It taught them that they have special talents that can help others. The biggest lesson I saw absorbed by these children was they were not alone. “A mí tambien” “Me too.” I am not alone in the disaster or in my life. Others are there beside me and together, we will push on.

Camp Noah gave the children their own blanket and toolkit for the week which included markers, glue, and my personal favorite, play dough. But Camp Noah really gave the children a much more vital toolkit, one filled preparedness, training, and coping techniques to assist them in times of stress.

After the closing ceremony, Felix our group’s class clown, began to cry. I named and validated his feelings. Its ok to be sad, I said. Goodbyes are hard. Then I gave him a hug, and whispered in his ear “A mí tambien, mi amigo.” Me too. I am sad to say goodbye too. He wasn’t alone.

This week was a valuable experience where the kids could explore something scary that happened with others who understood, and an opportunity for the kids to be kids and heal through play. Volunteering with Camp Noah was a moving and beautiful experience. I saw children who spoke Spanish and those who spoke English mingling together singing songs, sharing laughter, and playing games. They didn’t care if their new friends spoke the same language. By the end, we all forgot who spoke English and who didn’t, because everyone could understand the screaming and laughing that took place during a rousing game of Sharks and Lifeguards. These children are a living example of resilience and universal acceptance. They opened their hearts and shared their lives with me, and I am forever grateful for their trust and companionship.

-Torie Miele, CCLS