Abby Youngblom and Leah Nawrocki are child life specialist co-workers from Texas who responded on their days off. We are so grateful for their willingness to jump in and help when we needed it most. Here is a summary of their experience:
Our weekend assignment came 24 hours before we deployed. We were assigned to join a CDS team in one of the biggest shelters in the Austin area where families were taking refuge from all over the state of Texas. Some had lost everything and some were still waiting to assess the damage of their homes. We were unsure of what to expect, which is maybe a little of what the families themselves felt when they were entering the shelter.
Upon seeing the shelter and assigned play space, we realized that the only option was for it to be set up in the same large space as the family sleeping quarters. This did not seem to pose any problems throughout the weekend other than with securing the play materials overnight. Fortunately one of the families with children promised to keep an eye on the blocked off space when CDS volunteers were not present. The rest of the toys were stowed in an adjacent warehouse space.
We were excited to see the space organized into areas for pretend, sensory, and action play with puzzles, board games, paint, Play-Doh, cars, baby dolls, blocks, and other neutral play items. Within an hour of the play space opening, multiple children were already engaging in play. We were able to work ourselves into the team with other assigned volunteers who traveled all the way from Illinois, Ohio, California, Georgia, and Connecticut. We ourselves had made a four hour drive from Corpus Christi and had already heard stories of how many people were getting involved with disaster relief efforts country and world-wide.
Throughout the weekend we witnessed and engaged in a lot of laughter, building cardboard easels and a car ramp, sensory play with rice, making tie dye Play-Doh colors, and visits from therapy dogs. There were approximately 15 children who were served in the three days we spent in Austin. Most of them were between the ages of 3 and 6 and I am sure this number grew the following week. It was incredible to see how play quickly became a part of the children’s daily routine. They were able to recognize when it was time to play and when it was time to go back to their sleeping space or eat a meal with their family. In one instance I was amazed to see a 5 year old girl open up about how the “storm” had ruined her roof. It was while she was playing with the dry rice that she shared how to her, it felt like “rain.” The volunteer she confided in was able to clarify the little girl’s feelings about how the storm effects made her feel. She then continued on with her play acknowledging that this conversation was just a part of it.
The amount of support and positive acknowledgement of CDS services was another beautiful thing to witness. All of the security guards and members of local police and fire department working in the shelter made it a point to befriend the children or at least help them feel more comfortable with them being present. Some of the police officers spent time playing board games and doing other activities with older school age children in a separate assigned space. They also gave the kids sticker police badges and checked in with our team to make sure we did not have any toy needs. The smiles that their efforts brought created a more calming, therapeutic space that helped the kids feel more adjusted and open to play and laughter. We are so glad to have been a small part of these recovery support efforts.
-Leah Nawrocki & Abby Youngblom