REMINDER! An opportunity to learn more about Child Life Disaster Relief:
Friday May 26th in Las Vegas, NV.
We welcome all of you who are attending the ACLP conference this week to join us on Friday May 26th between 5:45pm-7pm in the BORDEAUX meeting room. This will be an informal opportunity to learn more about what CLDR is doing, ask any questions, network, and discover how you can be involved. We will see you there!
Caralyn Perlee, CLDR Director of International Relations has been in France working with Refugee children as part of a CLDR partnership with the Dunkirk Children’s Centre. Here is an update on her experiences– you won’t want to miss this!
On the first of February, I arrived in Dunkirk, France, where Europe’s first humanitarian refugee camp opened in March of 2016. I joined a team of volunteers that were running the children’s centre on camp, and soon assumed the role of Psychosocial and Welfare Coordinator. Dunkirk Children’s Centre had humble beginnings, growing from only a small tent into what eventually became a small campus, with two buildings, one for older children and one for younger, two play structures and an enclosed outdoor playspace. The goal of the organization was to provide a safe and structured play space for refugee children, run by adult figures that they could trust and depend upon.
When I first learned of the Children’s Centre, it seemed as if they were having a particularly difficult time with the children. With the exception of one long-term volunteer who had been there since the beginning and would eventually become director, different volunteers were cycling in an out of the kids’ lives on a weekly basis. Inexperienced volunteers were ill-equipped to handle the constant fights and troublesome behaviors, and were unable to create steady, trusting relationships with the children in order to even begin addressing the source of such behaviors.
When I first arrived, the children- especially the ones that had been living on camp the longest- seemed to be testing the boundaries with me in every way possible. At times I would get so frustrated that I didn’t think I could possibly last longer than a few weeks, but taking a step back and realizing that this was a direct reflection of the chaos, instability and fear that these children were experiencing made me determined to be as unwavering and trustworthy as I could possibly be. While I arrived with many goals for incorporating Child Life practice into the structure of the Children’s Centre, I quickly found out that flexibility and adaptivity were essential. The director had established a structure and routine that was more rule-oriented than an environment I had worked in previously. At first I was hesitant but quickly came to understand the need and the benefit, and it became apparent that before I would be able to accomplish anything of real therapeutic value, I needed to ensure these kids of their very basic need to feel safe.
Over time, as the need for constant behavior management declined, I found that I was more and more able to engage children therapeutically through both directive play and creative arts interventions. Children played out scenarios involving ISIS attacks, police raids, hiding in cargo trucks, boat journeys, and leaving homes and friends behind.
They became eager to tell their stories, once they understood that it was acceptable and safe to do so.
When we were able to enlist the help of an interpreter, it became clear that they were bursting to be heard and understood, and it was humbling to be on the receiving end of it.
Even the child with the most troublesome and violent behaviors, who often came to the centre only to pick fights and instigate chaos, eventually began engaging positively and productively following a particularly profound individual session.
On Monday the 10th of April, a large fire ravaged through the camp, and after the majority of the shelters burned down, the French government made the decision to close the camp altogether. Over 1,500 refugees were left homeless, having once again lost everything, their lives again filled with uncertainty, chaos and fear. The Children’s Centre had been working tirelessly for the past year to provide children with a sense of safety, structure and calm in a life that is otherwise completely absent of such, and overnight all of this was instantly taken from them. Families were moved into gymnasiums, where we were able to go in and set up temporary play spaces (pictured) and be present for the desperately anxious parents. When the gymnasiums closed in a government effort to bus everyone to relocation centers, many families refused and slept either in the woods or on the streets. The Children’s Centre team spent the following two weeks locating families to ensure that children were safe, clothed and fed, and when we were able to, engaging them in as much play as possible. At present, all of the families are safe in relocation centers, but futures are uncertain as they must decide to either seek asylum in France (most of them do not) or leave the country.
As for the Children’s Centre, the director and board of trustees are assessing needs at other refugee camps and looking into locations for the next project. It is the hope of the organization to make future centers sustainable through engaging the local refugee community and training them in the day to day operations and running of the centers. The model of the Children’s Centre is one that I firmly believe in and have seen the benefit of first hand. I am so proud to be a part of it and am eager to work with this organization wherever they may end up next.
Mark your calendars for Friday May 26th in Las Vegas, NV.
Child Life Disaster Relief (CLDR) will be at the ACLP 35th Annual Conference in Las Vegas. You are invited to join us for an informal opportunity to learn more about what CLDR is doing, ask any questions, network, and discover how you can be involved.
Plan to meet us in the Bordeaux meeting room anytime between 5:45pm-7pm on Friday May 26th. We will send out a reminder on Facebook closer to the date. See you there!
We had another successful Children’s Disaster Services child-life specific training this weekend. Thank you to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, TX for being a wonderful and gracious host. We trained a total of 50 child life folks and thoroughly enjoyed the presence of their therapy dogs as well! We can’t thank you enough and are eager to get you all certified and deployed!
…it’s in a graveyard? Everybody’s talking about it!”
This was perhaps one of my favorite quotes from our recent deployment in Oak Grove and Smithville, MO. It came out of nowhere while a CDS volunteer engaged in sensory play with a child who days prior survived an F3 tornado ripping the roof off her home.
While this child’s parents moved about the Multi Agency Resource Center (MARC) gaining assistance in putting life back together, she found a new friend and was eager to share what was the most interesting part of her day. Not that she lost most of her home and belongings, but rather the irony of a hot tub in a tree in a graveyard. Amidst, all the loss, it was oddly reassuring to hear this girl speak so frankly about the “word on the street” and it seemed so appropriate for this type of humor to be utilized to connect to others in this stage of her recovery.
Of course our interest was peaked and we had to find photographic proof later that evening.
As we drove out of the town that evening, peering out our car window was a bit different. A disaster such as this was very difficult for us to come to grips with as the tornado seemed to strike at random, much like a hot tub perched above tombstones in a tree. One house was flattened while 50 feet away not a single shingle was lost on the neighbors roof. I can only imagine how it must have felt to walk outside after the storm. One father I spoke with during the day talked about those first few minutes after the storm passed. “Once my son and I reoriented and realized we were safe, our first few thoughts were of devastation regarding the broken windows and blown out wall in our living room. However, that quickly passed and we recognized just how lucky we were. I told my son we were lucky to be alive and we had to go help those around us that were hit even worse. Never did I ever think I would look out into my backyard at 3am and see people just scrambling through debris searching for treasured items and loved ones.” Luckily, for this town no “loved ones” were lost. Working in the MARC, it was obvious this father and son’s actions were shared among many in the community. Parents and children alike told stories of helping each other out and feeling “lucky.” Perhaps it was timing (being near St. Patrick’s Day), but I must believe their artwork also depicted this luck and resilience in amazing ways!
Day 2 we returned to Oak Grove. Snow was falling outside! This was a true testament to how quick Missouri weather can change as the day the tornados rolled through the highs were hovering around 80!
We saw 9 kids throughout the day. While the number does not jump out as massive, many of the children spent several hours with us and let me assure you we were BUSY! On this day another CCLS, Sarah Pfeifer, joined the team. Having a CDS team of 4 came in handy as we were able to tag team children’s needs and support the various energy levels of the children. One particular three-year-old stood out as she continuously wanted to check in with her caregiver. It was interesting to see the separation anxiety, recognizing the developmentally appropriateness, but also the deviation of that given the recent disaster. Her need to check in was definitely elevated, it was nice to have enough volunteers in the center to be able to support her in checking in so frequently with her caregiver.
Another family came in to us mid-afternoon that warmed our hearts. Four siblings had experienced a total loss of their home. They were living with friends, had all new clothes, and had obviously been through a great deal of stress. It was neat to see the way these siblings were treating each other. As we can imagine, a typical day must involve some bickering and tiffs, but not today. The girls played cards together, the boys jumped in to teach them a new card game. The camaraderie and gentleness with which they spoke with each other was so special, something not often seen between siblings.
On Sunday, we moved to a 2nd MARC location in Smithville, MO about 50 miles away. For those of you trying to follow along, Missouri got hit by several tornadoes on the same night – in all corners of the state – Northwest, Central, Southeast, etc. We were lucky enough to have CLDR members respond to each MARC that was setup – Perryville, Oak Grove, and Smithville!
Exhaustion…it was interesting to see the energy level difference as the days went on. Friday, in Oak Grove, kids sought parachute games and bean bag tosses. Sunday the kids in Smithville were drawn to chalk drawings and rice play. It marked nearly a week since the tornado, much of the adrenaline rush had seized and the children seemed tired. One child slept in the corner, while another created a masterpiece drawing.
At this MARC it was interesting to see the number of caregivers that approached us for advice on how to help their children cope and what to expect or do to assist in this process. I spoke with a grandmother who was primary caregiver for her 3 year old grandchild, “she just keeps asking when she gets to go back to her home, sleep in her room…how do I tell her never?” We talked about finding something from the child’s home that would mean something to her…the grandmother said the only thing she has found thus far is a broken Paw Patrol plate she used to eat on…I told her that was perfect! It may or may not mean something now, but as the child grows it will be important for her to have something concrete to hold onto from her early years.
Another dad I spoke with described the challenges with trying to maintain routine, boundaries, and order in this chaotic situation. His house had minor damage, however, he graciously opened his doors to his brother and his family who lost their entire home. The result was 5 teenagers all under the same roof in tight quarters. “At first it was like a fun sleepover, but now those feelings have worn off and they are starting to get at each others throats….my kids are used to cleaning up after themselves, but my niece and nephew are leaving soda cans all over the place…it’s just not how we are used to our house functioning.” We talked about having open communication and engaging them in creating a new normal with shared expectations and rules. He was hesitant at first, but once I explained how creating these together can invigorate feelings of control and empowerment, while setting boundaries and routine assists in establishing feelings of safety I saw a sense of relief flush over his face. It was in these moments that I was reminded just how much my experience working with children and families in the hospital mirrored the work we were doing with families in this setting – empowering, educating, and supporting them to best support their children in times of chaos and stress.
As a mother to a 3 year old and full time PhD student this was the perfect opportunity to deploy. I was close to home and had the ability to tap friends and family for help. Thanks to my brother in law for picking up my son Friday afternoon and driving him to my parents in St. Louis for a fun filled weekend with his Mimi and Papa. Special kudos to my husbands co-worker for agreeing to take care of our two labs whose favorite past time is barking at strangers. And finally my father for meeting me an hour away from home Monday morning so I could hug, kiss, and squeeze my son as soon as possible.
This experience was very special to me for many reasons. One very special part was that joining me on this journey were two volunteers that share my last name! My husband and mother-in-law deployed as CDS volunteers all 3 days. It was so wonderful to have them along and watch them lift the spirits of the many families we served.
Also, SAVE -THE-DATE for the Spring one-day Children’s Disaster Services training in New York City for child life specialists and students! This training will be hosted by Bank Street College and Child Life of Greater New York on September 16th. Stay tuned for registration information.
Two child life specialists, Sarah Pfeifer and Lindsey Murphy are deploying with a Children’s Disaster Services team to Missouri after the devastating tornadoes/storms. It is estimated that approximately 300 families have been affected with either severe damage or complete destruction of their homes. Send them words of encouragement or comment your support here as they work with the kids and families who are struggling to cope.
Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) has been asked by the American Red Cross to serve in a Multi-Agency Resource Center in Perryville, Missouri in response to an EF-3 tornado that hit Tuesday night. We are fortunate to have Rachel Erler, a University of Missouri child life student and Child Life Disaster Relief member joining the CDS team to help support the children and families involved. The tornado ripped through the town causing severe damage to over 100 homes, 60 being total losses. Please keep the families, children, community, and volunteers in your thoughts and prayers as they recover from this devastating disaster.