10 years after 9/11: Bath woman helps kids deal with impact of attacks

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BATH — Marie Sheffield has seen the healing process come full circle since Sept. 11, 2001.

Sheffield, who has been as a grief-support counselor at a camp for youths who lost family members in the terrorist attacks, said she has watched many of them grow into counselors themselves.

For a week each year since 2002, America’s Camp has provided more than 450 campers a safe place to deal with their sorrow. They have met and befriended other people in the same situation, and gained the resilience needed to move forward.

The camp, in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, has brought together hundreds of volunteers, counselors, mental health consultants, camp directors, nurses, artists and spiritual providers to form an action- and arts-based environment, according to Maine’s Portland-based Center for Grieving Children.

Sheffield, a 43-year-old art therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor from Bath, first volunteered in 1999 with the center’s Tender Living Care program, which provides grief support for people coping with serious illnesses.The next year the center hired her as a mental health consultant for its multicultural program and, recently, she was hired to manage, coordinate and expand that program.

Sheffield noted that the children in both America’s Camp and the multicultural program suffered collective loss, a trauma that affects an entire community.

She participated at America’s Camp from 2004 to 2006, then gave birth to triplets and returned this year to attend the final camp.

“The main reason why I went was because it was this beautiful collective of people,” she said last week. “… Everyone’s been coming back for 10 years, and it’s like this wonderful community that’s developed, and (the youths are) able to share openly about whatever they need to. And it’s an amazing group of people working together for the same goal, which is providing an emotionally safe place for kids to just be who they are, to process whatever they need to process.”

An area at the camp called Buddy Central offers an art room and a living room for people to hang out and play games, as well as a place called the volcano room, Sheffield said.  The volcano room has been built to be safe and has cushioned walls and floors. It has a punching bag that must only be hit with gloves, and it also has foam noodles and blocks.

“The kids can just get it out,” Sheffield said. “If they’ve been holding their feelings (in) for so long, they come to camp and they can just let it out there.”

At times the youths in that room would build the Twin Towers with blocks, and knock them down.

“How kids do it, is they need to play things out,” Sheffield said, noting that verbal communication can come later. “A lot of the things that they’ve witnessed, or things that they’ve been in touch with around trauma … they have to play it over and over again until they make sense of it. A kid’s language is play, and our language (as adults) is verbal.”

Some kids would fall into the downed foam blocks, and others would pretend to save them from the make-believe rubble, simulating the efforts of rescuers to free people trapped in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The kids would also slide tubes into the pile to allow those in the blocks to “breathe,” Sheffield said.

The center has been part of the camp since its planning stages. The camp approached the center’s executive director, Anne Lynch, about creating a partnership, and since then more than 50 volunteers and staff from the center, like Sheffield, have trained and worked with camp staff to provide grief support.

Campers have been able to attend for free due to support from the America’s Camp Foundation and the Twin Towers Fund. The center’s work has also been supported by both the America’s Camp and A Little Hope foundations.

Although the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks comes soon after the end of America’s Camp, plans are underway for reunions and online networks between those who participated, continuing the friendships they gained in a time of loss.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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Marie Sheffield of Bath with masks used in the multicultural program at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland. She has also been a grief-support counselor at America’s Camp, a place for youths who lost family members in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.