Our story begins in 2010 when Katie Nees, a Certified Child Life Specialist, began researching how she could utilize her professional skills during emergencies and disasters outside of the hospital walls. She discovered Children’s Disaster Services (CDS), an organization with 35+ years of working with children in the aftermath of disasters, and she became a trained and certified volunteer with CDS in 2011.

Shortly following, Katie and Lindsey Murphy, a fellow child life specialist who shared a passion for traumatized children, shook hands and agreed to work toward their mutual goal of entering into the field of disaster relief. Their first task was to seek answers to two primary questions: 1) Is there a need? and 2) how do we meet that need? They attended numerous conferences and interviewed key disaster leaders, confirming there was a need and child life specialists’ expertise could help begin to fulfill that need.

They also discovered that the time is right! In the last several years, there has been an increased awareness and interest on the federal level in the care of children during and after disasters. In 2010, a committee of experts released the National Commission on Children and Disasters; 2010 Report to the President and Congress (http://archive.ahrq.gov/prep/nccdreport/nccdreport.pdf). In this 192 page report, they detail the needs and recommendations for meeting the needs of children on various levels including:

  • Pre-identify and credential additional local and out-of-State voluntary and non-governmental organizations and networks that provide disaster assistance to children and families
  • Lead efforts to integrate mental and behavioral health for children into public health, medical, and other relevant disaster management activities.
  • Lead the development of a disaster mental and behavioral health Concept of Operations (CONOPS) to formalize disaster mental and behavioral health as a core component of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts.

Based on these findings, Katie and Lindsey began pursuing avenues for getting the child life profession involved in disaster relief. They determined that the most successful way to start is to team up with organizations who are currently working with children and have trusted and established relationships within the field.

In 2012, they continued meeting with key disaster leaders and made several national and regional presentations to the American Red Cross, National Child Life Council, and CDS. The main goal was to grow in their knowledge of the field, network with others, and build awareness about disaster relief services and the potential for child life specialists’ role in such efforts.

In 2013, Katie was deployed as a CDS volunteer to Moore, Oklahoma after tornadoes had ripped apart homes and families. The experience reinforced the idea that the skills of child life specialists were well suited for working with children in the aftermath of disaster situations. Shortly following, Lindsey moved to pursue her doctorate at the University of Missouri-Columbia, with her main motivation to conduct formal research on the role of child life specialists in disaster relief efforts. In late 2013, what started as a dream started to come to fruition in the forming of the organization, Child Life Disaster Relief (CLDR).

In 2014, CLDR welcomed several new members to the team. Heather Storey, another fellow child life specialist, joined the efforts to lead the group’s first local team with the Red Cross in Cincinnati, OH.  Later that year, the CLDR team grew again with the addition of two more child life specialists, Tina Ulanowski and Gail Klayman. Both added years of experience as child life specialists in both crisis situations and in program development. At the year’s end, Cincinnati’s local child life disaster response group expanded to include 18 child life specialists who were trained and ready to serve locally in community emergencies and disasters. Some of their first responses included local shooting incidents, house fires, and flooding disasters.

During the summer of 2015, the CLDR team invited a 6th member to join the leadership, Caralyn Perlee.  Caralyn, based in NYC, brought an expertise on child life and disasters to the team after completing her master’s thesis on this topic.  Also in 2015, Katie became a CDS trainer and collaboratively with CDS provided a full-day intensive training at the National Child Life Council Conference on disaster relief involvement.  Based on high interest within the child life professional community,  an additional child life specific CDS training was offered in Fall 2015 in Minneapolis, MN.  At that point, they had trained over 130 child life specialists from around the country for deployment with CDS.

The CLDR team also began gathering essential data to begin understanding intentions, barriers, and role transferability for child life specialists during disaster relief work with the goal of building a strong foundation for the organization. CLDR is collaborating with research experts to conduct meaningful studies, mainly looking at implementation and sustainability of child life specialists’ involvement in such work.

In June of 2015, as a result of the positive working relationship formed over the years, Child Life Disaster Relief entered into a formal partnership with Children’s Disaster Services.  Katie became a CDS Professional Consultant and continued a focused effort they to recruit and train child life specialists from around the country for national and local deployments with CDS.

2016 included several CDS trainings around the country including, Tampa, Florida; Kalamazoo, Michigan; LaVerne, California; and Seattle, Washington to name a few.  Several other regional child life groups and child life departments within hospitals contacted the CLDR team seeking training opportunities for their area.

By the end of 2016, CLDR obtained official nonprofit status, trained 250+ child life specialists and students, and developed 4 task forces.  These task forces (Research, Resources, Local Development, International Exploration) consist of child life specialists from around the country working together on specific tasks lead by the CLDR board.   Anne Longo was also added to the CLDR board in 2016 bringing diversification and invaluable expertise to the leadership team.

2017 has started off with a bang with two newly developed partnerships including Camp Noah and Dunkirk Refugee Children’s Centre.   The CLDR team and task forces have several goals and are working diligently to continue the rapid growth of this organization.

The CLDR team continues to seek information on their original questions of 1) is there a need?  and 2) How can we meet that need?    in regards to various opportunities, partnerships and avenues all with the goal of helping minimize trauma and maximize coping for children.

To read more about our current initiatives and future goals check out What’s Happening  and follow us on Facebook.