A $12,000 grant from the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program, and vigorous local fundraising, will allow teachers, psychologists and survivors from Columbine, Colo. and Jonesboro, Ark. school shootings to accompany Sparks Middle School children during the "Jan Jam weekend."
Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church Pastor Howard Dotson said Wednesday that 25 children had already registered and up to 50 girls and 50 boys are able to attend. Dotson said adopting Ferncliff Camp's program for school shooting survivors will unite Sparks Middle School students with those who can best relate to the events that occurred in October of 2013.
"Theologian has a term called the 'wounded healer,' and like the Vietnam vets, these kids want to talk to someone who has been through what they have been through," Dotson said. "They have talked to enough counselors. These people will have the credibility to tell them their story, what they have been through and how they were able to get through it. It is more like a motivational speaker rather than duplicating or encroaching on the counseling the kids have already received."
Dotson said combining the experience of Ferncliff Camp faculty with local teachers and psychologists lets the students know who they can turn to when the weekend comes to an end. Dotson said he has formed relationships with the children and families in the Sparks Middle School neighborhood and he said gaining trust with the students will only improve after the trip.
"Kids are naturally a little reluctant to trust you until they know who you are and we have been working since before the candlelight vigil to let them know we are here," he said. "We want to have that local presence (this weekend) so they don't return home thinking the people they have worked with get on a plane and they don't see them again."
Students will have activities such as gondola rides, tubing and more to keep them busy, all of which was donated by Heavenly Mountain Resort. Attendees will be lodging at the Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center, though no "organized religious activities" are planned, and food will be provided through the donations of six Reno-Sparks churches and nine local restaurants.
The remaining grant and donation funds will be held in reserve for teachers and staff at Sparks Middle School to have a complimentary night in the Zephyr Point Conference Center.
The Sparks Middle School shooting ended with one student (shooter) and teacher Michael Landsberry, dead, and left two students wounded. In 1998, the Jonesboro shooting left five dead (four students, one teacher) and 10 wounded. One year later the Columbine shooting left 13 dead (12 students, one teacher) and more than 20 wounded.
Dotson's "dream team" of well-trained chaperones will take a motivational approach to healing through the testimony of the survivors of all three shootings. Dotson said an element of play will be a key factor in helping Sparks Middle School children cope with their tragedy.
"It relieved me to talk to the moms of that community and know that most of the kids who were exposed to the trauma are the ones that are going. Those are the kids we really hoped to reach," Dotson said. "A lot of these kids are at-risk youths. They face gang recruitment all the time. They are a lot more resilient than most people give them credit for.
"Kids learn through play and that is how they work through things. If you talk to any child psychologist they will tell you that is how they work things out best, and to see them smiling up on Heavenly makes it all worth it."
For more information about the Jan Jam free weekend at Lake Tahoe for Sparks Middle School students, contact Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church at 424-3622. Registration can be completed up to one hour before the bus leaves Friday.