At Camp Shine, the counselors are actually counselors — and not just in the typical summer camp way. They're therapists.
Their aim was to get kids painting and acting out skits and singing about their shared trauma: the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 people dead and another 17 injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
For two weeks, a few hours a day, campers participated in group therapy disguised as music, theater and art activities. The camp provided an outlet for artistic as well as therapeutic expression. In one exercise, students painted two sides of masks: on the outside they portrayed the faces they show the world, usually with brighter colors, and on the inside, their true, often darker selves.
About 80 Douglas students, including incoming freshmen, attended the camp this summer. The first session was held at the high school, and later sessions next door at Westglades Middle School.
"They're here to have fun, but they're also here to heal," Camp Shine director Angela Malley said in a Westglades hallway one afternoon this July. The 2006 Douglas alumna lives in Baltimore but returned to Parkland for the summer to help out.
"They need to remember what it's like to be joyful, to have fun, to play, to smile," Malley said, "because a lot of them haven't in a really long time."
The namesake and inspiration for the camp was the song "Shine," written in the days following the massacre by student survivors Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Peña. The students attracted national media coverage and accolades from celebrities for their anthem, which they decided to sell on iTunes to raise money for a foundation they created, called Shine MSD.
Their idea was to help other kids heal like they did, through making music and art. And now they're hoping to bring creative arts therapy to other communities that have been struck by school shootings.
"I never thought that this camp would come about. And if it wasn't for this song, then it wouldn't have happened," said Peña, 16, who starts her junior year at Douglas this week. "It's rewarding to see … how much it helped other kids."
INSIDE CAMP SHINE
About a dozen students formed a "U" shape with their tables and chairs, facing a bulb-shaped microphone that stood in the front of the Westglades classroom. On this July afternoon, the kids of Camp Shine stayed after regular hours for a bonus songwriting workshop. And because this particular activity was not technically therapy, I was allowed to sit in.
The workshop leaders — from the Miami educational nonprofit The Motivational Edge — warmed up the kids by asking them to find rhymes for their names. They went around the tables, introducing themselves.
"My name is Chris. I have ice on my wrist, and you know I'm better than bliss," one camper offered. His peers whooped in congratulation, commenting that they didn't want to follow him.
Maria was up next.
"My name is Maria. You can't beat-her. In the future, I'll be riding a two-seater," she said. The kids laughed and clapped.
The next boy's introduction was not so upbeat.
"My name is Shane. I got hit by a plane. Whenever I go outside, it rains. And social situations are my bane."
The instructors — Gerald Campbell and Lakshmi Ruiz — playfully tried to lighten the mood.
"You got bad luck, Shane. You got bad luck," Campbell told the teen, laughing.
"Is that your rap name? 'Bad Luck Shane'?" Ruiz added.
"I think it works. I think it works," Campbell answered.
The exchange represented the flow of emotions at Camp Shine. Sometimes kids were playing, acting silly. Sometimes they were putting their feelings into words and actions so profound that it's clear they've known pain greater than what any child should experience.
"All the students that are participating in the camp have all been deeply affected [by the shooting] in some way," said Malley, the camp director, "whether they were hiding in a closet on the other side of campus; or they don't even go to Douglas, but they lost their best friend or a sibling; or they were injured and in the hospital."
Garrity and Peña, the two students who raised money for the camp, attended the first session, which was held at their high school.
Peña, in the drama group, was asked to share a story about a time when she felt most understood. Then, she and her peers had to title each other's stories. The anecdotes felt too personal to share with the larger group of campers — some were focusing on music, and others, on visual art — so the drama section created pantomimes to perform for their peers instead.
Peña also remembered an art project some of the other kids did: a mural with the theme "shine bright like a diamond." Students painted a gemstone at the center and then portrayed streams of light in different colors radiating out from it: red for love, purple for equality, yellow for happiness. Then they painted images that they associated with those words.
Another painting showed how the campers viewed themselves before Feb. 14, how they see themselves now, and what they hope their futures will look like.
The therapists in charge of the camp saw kids transform.
"There's a stuckness. There's a dissociated look that happens to people who are recently traumatized. So it's basically like they're not in their bodies. They've left their bodies, because their bodies aren't safe anymore," said Jessica Asch, a New York City drama therapist who designed and directed the group-therapy curriculum for Camp Shine.
"And that's what trauma does. It disconnects you from your body and your emotions and your heart," said Asch, who typically works with young people who are involved in the criminal justice system, people who struggle with drug or alcohol abuse and Holocaust survivors.
"Our job is to put everybody back together," she said.
Asch said campers showed up on the first day looking like shells, void of emotion.
"By the end, we were laughing and crying and connecting and sharing, and they were connected back," she said.
RESEARCHERS 'ENCOURAGED' BY EARLY RESULTS
Researchers from the University of Miami are working to measure Camp Shine's long-term effectiveness for treating depression, anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most of the data they collected comes from age-appropriate questionnaires students took on the first and last day of camp.
The researchers — Gail Ironson, who runs the trauma treatment program at UM, and her doctoral student, Emily Hylton — have already begun to analyze data from the early sessions of the camp.
The campers were a mix of Douglas students and younger kids who went to Westglades next door. About half of the early session participants reported they heard gunshots or screams on Feb. 14. Three quarters of them knew someone who was killed, and more feared for their own safety.
On the survey, campers reported, for example, whether they were feeling tired or having little energy, or if they were sleeping too much, which are indicators of depression. Kids with anxiety might be worrying too much, feeling restless and having trouble relaxing. Those suffering from trauma would be thinking about the shooting when they don't mean to, having dreams or nightmares about it, or jumping in surprise when they hear loud noises.
The researchers said about half of the students were showing symptoms of P.T.S.D. A third had moderate depression, and a third, moderate anxiety.
On the last day, the students took another survey explaining whether their symptoms had improved.
"The preliminary data is showing that there are reductions in post-traumatic symptoms, which we're very encouraged by," Ironson said. She added: after the camp, kids were having fewer "intrusive thoughts" and feeling less jumpy. She also saw decreases in their anxiety levels and their impairment of being able to perform daily activities.
"One of the things that we particularly like about the camp is that the students have the opportunity to either tell their story or to tell other people's stories, and to process their emotions about the trauma," Ironson said. "Or, if they feel too vulnerable, they can self-regulate and not engage that much."
Ironson and Hylton plan to publish their findings in hopes of encouraging similar art therapy programs in other places where there have been mass shootings.
But first, they plan to do a follow-up survey with campers after three months.
"If the intervention works for two weeks, and then it fades again after a week, it's not nearly as valuable as if it holds on into the fall, especially as these students go back to school," Hylton said.
I recently visited Camp Shine in Parkland and got to observe as another group of talented students wrote their own song processing what happened: "We are going to survive/ Going through this fight with you by my side" pic.twitter.com/ukttVCXX1h
— Jessica Bakeman (@jessicabakeman) August 14, 2018
'THIS IS REALLY GONNA HELP US'
During the songwriting workshop I attended, Camp Shine kids chose a background track, wrote lyrics and began recording their song in just a couple of hours.
They provided percussion with claps and stomps. And then a few boys recorded rap sequences:
This battlefield I'm in
It gave me thicker skin
I'm ready to begin
And I'm sure to win
No one said the dark was quiet
No one said it would be silent
We'll conquer all our fears
A life with no more tears
And the girls recorded a chorus:
I can shine like a firefly
In the night sky, in the sky tonight
We are going to survive
Going through this fight with you by my side
Kayli, 14, a new freshman who attended Westglades last year, said she found the camp activities to be "healing." We're not using Kayli's last name to protect her privacy, since Camp Shine's primary purpose was to provide mental health treatment.
"It's relaxing, it's calming, and it kind of takes our minds off things," said Kayli, who attended the second session of Camp Shine and enjoyed it so much, she decided to stay for the third.
"We're still kind of upset about the whole thing, and we have the right to be," she said, "but I think this is really gonna help us. It already has helped us."
Listen to their song below: