Bethany Petersen is a child life specialist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan. This is her deployment story:
I remember sitting in the airport the morning of September 17th, not knowing what I would be walking into in the coming hours. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of excitement and nervousness at the same time – a feeling that’s hard to explain. As soon as I hopped on the plane, I pulled out my Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) training binder attempting to review and “prepare”, but my mind could only focus on what was to come. On my flight south, the passengers surrounding me swapped stories about their evacuation and escape from Hurricane Irma, anxiously awaiting the moments they would return to their properties to assess damage and reunite with neighbors and their communities. These were the first of many, many stories I had the honor of listening to and engaging in. “Stories” to us – reality to them. A few hours later I found myself standing alongside teammate Kim at the baggage claim in Fort Myers airport and awaiting our ride from the previous team’s CDS project managers, Tom and Linda. The next 24 hours were somewhat messy, however amidst the chaos of in processing and getting settled, my mind remained focused on one thing: getting to the children and families to provide support.
Our team was blessed to be in a shelter that provided us with a large (but not too large) room that gave the children a safe space to play with lots of room to branch out and explore. The overall theme of this deployment, and something I consistently found myself thinking about, was play. In fact, play is the theme of my normal day to day life, as well. All aspects of the work of a Child Life Specialist are rooted in play. We live and breathe play. We know that play is a child’s work, that play is a universal language and that it is the way that children process what they have experienced and communicate with adults. That being said, this was the first time since my pre-internship days that I had the opportunity to play with a child all day long, seven days in a row. And let me tell you… it sure was powerful. This experience really brought me back to the basics. If someone was a fly on the wall of that playroom, it may have looked like we were “just playing” with blocks, with boxes, with balls, with crafts and books. It may have looked like we were just being silly and having fun. We were building trust. Providing a safe space for children to be children and fostering a sense of normalcy in a place that is anything but normal. We were giving children the opportunity to connect with each other and feel cared for by loving and safe adults. We had several children who either did not speak English, or spoke very broken English. It was really powerful to see how play impacted their time with us as a team – how we do not necessarily need to verbally communicate with each other to be understood.
As the week progressed, I think our entire team realized how real the devastation is. It’s so easy for us to sit on the couch and watch the news from the comfort of our living room, then flip the TV off and get on with our lives. It’s not that simple for those impacted. The children and families we met lost everything. The hurt and pain and devastation is reality for them, far long after the media leaves and the news stops.
Almost all of the children participated in artwork every day. They loved coloring, gluing, taping, cutting and being creative with materials provided to them. Two young girls, in particular, loved to draw. In fact, they sat at the arts and craft table for hours every day. The picture on the right was drawn by a school-aged girl, who described the drawing to me. The drawing is of her house – the things important to her (books, clothes, table, toys, and bed) and the hurricane. The photo on the left was created by a 5-year-old – houses on hills being rained on. Above the rain, a rainbow.
Several of our team members were able to spend one on one time with a young boy towards the end of our deployment. With his direction, we created a town. He used tape to make roads and paper to make various landmarks in his town. We also made a neat song about his town, which he walked around singing for the rest of the day. We watched this quiet child transform throughout the morning – all from playing, utilizing simple items.
Now, I’ve been home for a few weeks, yet as I reflect on that time, I still find myself at a loss for words to describe my experience. It’s difficult for me to come home and return to my normal daily life – in my standing and dry house – knowing that my new friends in Estero won’t. “Normal” is far off for them. Even so, the children and families I met are some of the most incredible people. Every person I talked to, every story I heard ended in “but we’re so thankful for _____”. Something that stands out to me is the hope that these people still had in their hearts, even though they have every right to be hardened after what they’ve experienced. The storms couldn’t drown their love and I will hold the children’s smiles and laughter in my heart forever. There was a rainbow in the sky almost every day I was there this week, even if it was small. These children found those rainbows, and that is what kept me going when I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I am extremely eager to deploy again – but until I do, I’ll continue to look for the rainbow, even if small, in each day.