Former students return to Ferncliff 25 years later
by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — After a deadly shooting at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Arkansas, David Gill and others pined for a way to aid students in their emotional and spiritual recovery. He began delving into the idea of holding a healing camp at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center, where he worked a few hours away.
The shooting on March 24, 1998, had taken the lives of four students and a teacher, and “everybody wanted to do something” to comfort the children, Gill said. “After a tragedy like that, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s our presbytery. Those are our kids,’ and so everybody was thinking, ‘What can we do? How can we reach out? How can we give a hug to those kids and help them in their healing?’”
Initially, the school community was not receptive to the idea of the camp, but after several weeks of nudging, the first application arrived out of the blue.
“I didn’t know it had been approved; I didn’t know anything, but here’s a kid registering, and then, the next day, a few more,” Gill said. Eventually, “we ended up with 68 for that first camp.”
Supported by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and other donors, the camp left a lasting impression on participants, who got to bond together and to be nurtured by caring staff and volunteers in a setting that allowed the kids to be kids.
These youngsters “weren’t coming to sit around and get psychoanalyzed,” Gill said. “They wanted permission to swim and hike and talk to each other and stay up late and do the things you do at camp, so that was important — just to be natural — and I told my counselors, ‘All you have to do is give these kids unconditional love. Don’t worry about all the psychological stuff. We’ve got people to back you up if you get in over your head. But if you can just embrace these kids and be the best counselor you can be, that’s what they need.’”
The mother of camper Lindsay Kifer came along to comfort her, but Kifer was glad that she and her Westside peers could lean on the counselors and staff as well. “You’ve got these 11-, 12-, 13-year-old kids that have just experienced the worst day of their life, and we didn’t know how to react to things; sometimes, we still don’t,” Kifer said. “But I believe wholeheartedly they (the adults) did what they were called to do: They loved us.”
That first camp morphed into a series of camps that have benefited not only Westside students but survivors of other school violence incidents, such as the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.
“The team that put the camps together and ran them just had such a gentle and kind of intuitive touch around making sure that we felt included and safe and able to share, but then if there was a moment where somebody did need to step aside or have some quiet time or something was overwhelming, there were no questions asked,” said Seattle mom Christine Dove, a former Columbine student who was invited by Gill to start attending the camps and taking part in other outreach efforts by Ferncliff to help survivors of school violence.
Westside camper Alex Beasley also appreciated how patient the adults were at the camps and how much camaraderie he felt. In school, “you’ve got the cliques, the jocks and the nerds and whatever, just like there is today … but at Ferncliff, all that was torn down, so everyone really connected,” he said.
Dove, Beasley and Kifer were among several alumni of the healing camps who returned to Ferncliff this summer for a 25-year reunion that also attracted several family members and additional guests, such as representatives from PDA, one of the camp’s original funders.
“It was a great opportunity to engage and meet the people who survived these terrible tragedies,” said the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, who leads PDA. “To listen to their stories and to hear about the impact these camps had in their lives, to see them laugh and be with their families, to see them embrace each other in love and remembering their times in Ferncliff was a heartfelt experience.”
Kifer, a chiropractic assistant and mom in Jonesboro, found the event to be refreshing and gratifying. A lot of things on the grounds have changed, “but that spirit of unity is there,” she said. “You just feel love immediately when you arrive at Ferncliff. … I felt like a 12-year-old kid again, and it wasn’t a bad thing. It was such a good thing to be there and to be back.”
Twenty-five years ago, survivors of the Westside shooting were being aggressively pursued by the media, so those who registered for the camp were brought to Ferncliff on decoy buses to make sure they would be able to experience the camp in relative seclusion.
“These were young kids,” Gill said. “Most of them had teddy bears with them, and blankets and pillows, and two-thirds of them were on psychotropic medications. These were traumatized kids, and I give the parents a lot of credit that they would allow their kids to be out of their sight. … There was a parent or two that came and worked in the kitchen, or they just wanted to come, and I said, ‘I understand. We’ll put you in a role.’”
The kids wanted to have fun, but their fragility also came through at times, Gill said. On one such occasion, astronomers with telescopes had been brought in, along with a professional storyteller, for a night under the stars.
“Something in that story caused some of the girls to start crying and then another group of girls start crying, and then within minutes, it just spread through the crowd,” Gill said. “They were sobbing, and we literally had to pick up the girls and put them in a vehicle and drive them up to the conference center and lay them out. It was like triage. They just had this catharsis. They had this stuff inside them they needed to get out.”
Emotions came flooding back again during the July 2023 reunion. “I got there the night before everybody and just kind of had a quiet night to myself,” Dove said. “I went out and I sat by the lake, and I watched fireflies and I listened to the cicadas and the bullfrogs and just so much emotion and gratitude was everywhere around me to be there again.”
There also were moments of glee as people sang and danced during the reunion and introduced new people, including relatives, to Ferncliff.
“I wanted my kids to experience this,” said Beasley, who came with his wife, Kim, and their three children. “My son is 11, which I was 11 when the shooting happened, and so it’s really kind of like, ‘Wow,’ so he got to experience Ferncliff, and everything was joyous.”
As he reflected on the good that has come from the camps and how Ferncliff itself has continued to thrive and improve as a facility, Beasley gravitated to the Genesis account of Joseph forgiving his brothers.
“My takeaway from the weekend was what you meant for evil, God meant for good,” Beasley said. “God blessed a lot of people through Ferncliff.”
González-Castillo noted, “The path to healing has many roads. Sometimes, it’s bumpy. Sometimes, it feels lonely. But thanks to the tools and experiences shared during these camps, they (the students) were able to connect with other survivors, share the stories and recognize that even though healing takes time, they are not alone in the journey.”
PDA National Associate the Rev. James Kirk said the camp brought to mind two main things for him — human resilience and the long-term impact of school violence.
“These people went through just a horrific event and at a very early time in their lives, and through the help and support of community, family and the healing camps, they’ve been able to integrate the experience in a way that they’ve been able to find healing,” Kirk said. However, “it’s also clear that it was just a huge event in their lives that still is pressing (on them) to a certain degree,” and with so many other school shootings taking place, there is trauma that is “accumulating” in communities across the United States.
PDA’s participation in the healing camp is an example of its multi-year history of responding to human-caused events, often helping to support caregivers and faith leaders assisting those affected, Kirk said. “We do, when appropriate, show up after human-caused events and we recognize that the long-term implications of surviving such an event are significant, and opportunities to gather as community in an intentional way helps to promote healing.”
Reunion weekend included many activities, including arts and crafts, swimming, fishing, hiking and square dancing. There also was time for worship and a Night of 100 Hugs, a tradition in which participants and guests hug each other and write their names on each other’s T-shirts.
Another meaningful activity for some of the attendees was being able to traverse a labyrinth that has been a big part of the healing camps over the years.
“It means the world to me that it’s still there and Ferncliff was the first place that I was ever introduced to the labyrinth as a (meditative) practice,” Dove said. “Because of the way that it’s constructed, you have these moments where you’re walking right alongside someone for several feet and then suddenly you’ll both take a turn and then be across the labyrinth from each other, and for me, it was just such a beautiful metaphor about all of our healing processes and all of the places that life takes you. … Sometimes, you’re right in stride with somebody and sometimes, they’re very, very far from where you are, but we’re all walking the same paths.”
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Categories: Camps and Conference Centers, Disaster Response
Tags: camps and conference centers, compassion peace & justice, david gill, Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center, gun violence, healing camp, presbyterian disaster assistance, Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, rev. jim kirk
Ministries: Camps and Conferences, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance