Former students return to Ferncliff 25 years later
December 18, 2023
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.’”
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 past 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.”
Darla Carter, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center hosted a healing camp for school violence for students
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Ever-present God, help us to see today with the heart of Jesus the needs of those around us. And may our hands always be helping in Jesus’ name. Amen.