In August, as the heat drove most folks into air-conditioned houses or the cool relief of swimming pools, a small group set out from St. John's Lutheran Church in Jim Thorpe, headed for a remote Indian reservation in Montana.
There, the group – the Rev. Ruth Doty, Jennifer Eggerling, Angie Blum and Kensey Shanfelt – would spend a week conducting a very special vacation Bible school called Camp Noah.
Camp Noah is "designed for children who have been through disasters," Doty said.
Begun in 1997 by Lutheran Social Service in Minnesota after floods struck the northern part of the state and North Dakota, Camp Noah has since blossomed, with trained teams visiting trouble spots across the United States.
This was Doty's fourth Camp Noah. She had previously gone to Texas in 2006 for children who survived hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and twice to Iowa in 2009: once after a flood and again after immigration officials raided a meat packing plant, arresting 390 people.
Doty was among those Camp Noah teams organized by Lutheran Congregational Services, the social services ministry in this region. Doty works with LCS as the disaster preparedness and recovery coordinator for Lutherans in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod. LCS has sent out 12 Camp Noah teams since 2006.
The team from St. John's traveled about 2,000 miles to Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, home of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, in Box Elder, in north central Montana. A flood there in June had swept away the reservation's medical clinic, took out roads and bridges, and damaged homes. The loss of the clinic was devastating: People must travel for hours to get medical and dental care, Doty said.
The team stayed from Aug. 15-21 and taught about 50 children. The trip was funded by donations, with much help coming from the local Thrivent for Lutherans.
For Blum and Shanfelt, both of whom attend Jim Thorpe Area High School, the experience will last a lifetime.
Blum had a typically busy summer that included directing the church's vacation Bible school. So, when Doty approached her about Camp Noah, "I was thinking about it, and that I would probably never get another opportunity to go to Montana and help people, so I was like, you know, I'm going to go for this," she said.
She went, but with a bit of uncertainty as to how the people of the community would respond. Blum wondered how well the community would accept a Lutheran team teaching a Bible school, and how that would mesh or clash with traditional Native American spiritual beliefs.
It turned out she needn't have worried.
"They were very welcoming," Blum said. "I was surprised to see how much they wanted us there."
The people shared their own beliefs with the team, and how they belonged to a local Lutheran church while keeping tribal beliefs.
As part of her experience, Blum climbed a mountain to one of the tribe's outdoor worship area.
Shanfelt went because she wanted to experience a new place. No novice to helping missions, Shanfelt last year went with the National Youth Gathering to New Orleans, where she helped survey community needs.
Although she was disappointed to not see any grizzly bears, the mission left Shanfelt with warm memories.
She loved "seeing all the kids, and how a lot of them came back every day. A lot of my kids every day had smiles on their faces, they were so excited to be there. It made me happy to see that they were happy to be there, and that they trusted us," she said.
Eggerling said that "When Pastor Ruth talked about Camp Noah, it reminded me of when I was a teenager. I had been involved in a couple of church work camps – we went out to help people. One was a migrant workers farm, and we fixed up a chapel for them. The other was in Vermont, opening up, cleaning and painting a camp for mentally retarded children. That's the kind of thing I like to do, helping out.
"The people there (at Rocky Boy) were, at the beginning, a little maybe unsure of us. But children are children anywhere, and they respond," she added. "Working with the children, talking about Noah," and being able to draw out the children's feelings about the flood and its impact on their lives was rewarding.
The community shared their culture – dancing, drumming and song – with the visitors from Pennsylvania.
"That was very moving," Eggerling said.
Camp Noah gently draws children into a safe, warm and caring Bible school experience.
"The first day we concentrate on getting to know the children and building trust. We don't ask directly about the disaster because the children also need to get to know us before they will be willing to share," Doty said. "We have the children do activities like 'write' a newspaper about themselves (really it is fill in some things and draw some pictures on a sheet that is to be about them.) In the next days we work on helping the children to understand that each of them is special and unique. We gradually ask them to share what scares them it may be something from the recent disaster, or it may be other things in their lives."
The story of Noah is woven in, through stories, sharing and crafts.
"Each day Noah teaches them his wise words, like 'Worry and fear get out of the way! I'm looking forward to a better day'," Doty said.
On the last day of Camp Noah "we did service projects to emphasize that the children have gifts to give to the community," she said. "This year the older children picked up trash around their school and the little ones made place mats and cards for meals on wheels."
The team gave each child a quilt, hand made by members of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod.
"The children cuddle in their quilts at story time or whenever they need a little warm, soft comfort," Doty said.
One child put her quilt over her shoulders, and "twirled and twirled and twirled around, lost in whatever she was thinking," Doty said. "It was just so neat to see." The children are "so impressed that each quilt is different, and that somebody made that for them."
Each child also each received a wooden Noah's Arc bank. The tops lift off the banks to reveal a cubbyhole in which treasures can be hidden. They also get a little backpack "preparedness kit" that contains a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, flashlight, batteries, crayons and playing cards.
The children so loved Camp Noah, she said, that two little girls, whose family planned to take to a water park on what would be the last day, cried and asked to be allowed to come to the Bible school instead. Their family allowed them to do that, Doty said.