I’m home. Twelve days, four cities, and four shelters with Children’s Disaster Services.
The thought that keeps weighing heavily on me as I quickly return to my normal life and routines is how many of the children and families I have spent time with over the past two weeks will not be experiencing this return to normalcy for a very long time. Many are starting over entirely in a new city. They have spent days without the comfort of routine, and it can be scary, exhausting, and traumatic, to name a small handful of experiences and emotions they might be enduring.
But then there is play.
Play is the universal language of children. It can bring normalcy and routine to a life that has been uprooted and rerooted. Upon entering our play space at each shelter, many children appeared fearful, tearful, and quiet. Slowly, each one settled into their expertise: dress-up, imaginative play, painting, play dough, active play with balls, bubbles, or quiet time with books and blankets. At one shelter, we were told a little boy was non-verbal, but slowly over time in our play area, he began to express himself through words!
The kids taught me so many things. I learned that cardboard boxes can be transformed into castles, homes, airplanes, places to sleep or hide, or boats that can rescue from the floods. In one shelter, I was instructed by a particular child to row the boat while he huddled inside the cardboard box.
Me: “Where are we?”
Child: “The floods!”
Me: “Where are we going?”
Child: “To here” (pointing to the shelter we were staying in).
Me: “How long will it take us?”
Child: “55 hours, are you hungry? Do you like cheese-its?”
In the safety of our play area, this child was reenacting his experience with Hurricane Harvey. What a privilege for me to be a part of his process of healing through play!
But as I return to my own normalcy, I keep thinking about the long road ahead for many of these children. I am grateful to have been a small part of meeting the needs of children impacted by Hurricane Harvey during the initial days and weeks.
When I first heard about the Children’s Disaster Services training through Child Life Disaster Relief I couldn’t wait to get trained… little did I know I would get deployed less than 6 months later! I was able to make arrangements at work and at home and then learned I was set to fly from my home in Dallas to Atlanta to Houston. I didn’t completely understand my flight plans, but I figured there was a method to the madness. When I arrived in Atlanta, I met with the other CDS volunteers and learned our flight to Houston was cancelled. It was still too dangerous for us to deploy to Houston. So, there we were in the Atlanta airport watching the news on what was happening in Houston. It was at that point that I reminded myself to be flexible and just “go with the flow.”
Our project manager explained having so many changes in flights doesn’t typically happen, but we were deployed while the storm was still active which deterred our plans. After traveling from Dallas that morning at 9am, and waiting in the Atlanta airport for hours, we landed instead in San Antonio around 12am. The first day of deployment was solely dedicated to traveling and getting to know members of my team! Our second day of deployment was focused on checking in with the Red Cross headquarters and finding out what shelter we would be going to. Once the Red Cross staff/volunteers saw some CDS shirts and learned what we were there to provide, they continued to express how much we would be needed at the shelters.
When we arrived at our shelter the first step was to set up our play space. We used tables and cardboard boxes to section off our space. While we were setting up we caught the eye of many kiddos wanting to play, and we let them know we would be opening soon! When it was time to open, the children we played with were so sweet and excited to play. Our play space was in a great location. If the parents/caregivers desired, they could easily walk by to see what their child was doing, which I think provided a much needed sense of security.
When we arrived the next day, we were more prepared to set up our center and open up quickly because we already knew the layout. It was a great day of play, but then we got a surprise… at the very end of our second day we learned that our shelter with a capacity of 300 was closing and that we would be moving to a mega shelter with the capacity of over 2300. We didn’t know what to expect with moving to a “mega shelter.” There were so many questions that wouldn’t be answered until we arrived to our new location. What was our new space going to look like? How many children are at this location? What are the rules for this shelter? While we didn’t know what to expect for the new shelter we just had to wait. Again, practicing our patience and flexibility!
The next morning we got to the mega shelter and worked to set up. Our new play space was in a room with a door, which was completely different than the first shelter. This play space was bigger, but the location was not as convenient for parents to walk by and see their children like the first shelter. Each shelter had challenges of their own, but we worked together to be creative and meet the needs of the kiddos. After getting set up in our new shelter we were open for business! There were a few interactions that specifically resonated with me.
6yo boy that chose not to verbally communicate with anyone. Although he wasn’t talking I told him I would paint with him if he desired, but he had to let me know with thumbs up or down if he wanted a painting buddy. He gave me thumbs up and we painted a house together with no verbal communication. I think he initially thought I wouldn’t play with him if he didn’t communicate, but he learned that I was going to play with him even if he didn’t want to talk!
4yo boy I met at the mega shelter asked me if I was at the shelter because I had a hurricane at my house too. I explained to him that I didn’t have a hurricane, but that I came from my house to play with him and the other children in the shelter. During our time together we spent quite a bit of time in the dramatic play area. We played in a cardboard box that was a “house.” While we played together, he had an idea for us to take turns getting stuck in the house until the community helpers (fireman, policeman, construction worker and doctor) came to save us and help us get out of the house.
6yo girl I met at shelter #1. She was very outgoing, and easily attached to me over the course of two days. Her younger brother and sister also joined our center. She and I played with just about every item in our center! Specifically she asked me to read “The Magic School Bus Presents Wild Weather” and we talked about her hurricane experience. She shared with me that she was a little scared of the hurricane, but she was afraid of what she saw on TV. I validated her feelings and then she was ready to move on to play with something else. We spent quite a bit of time together each day. After finding out we were no longer returning to shelter #1 I couldn’t help but think about what she was going to think when we didn’t show up the next day. The second day in the mega shelter I was shocked to see her walk through the door in our new play area. Her family had also been moved to the mega shelter! She ran up to me and hugged me and I was overwhelmed. She asked why we left the other shelter and I did my best to explain to her that we didn’t know the other shelter was closing either but that we were excited that she was here to play with us again. That interaction really resonated with me because it made me think of how many changes in one week these children and families have been through. This family evacuated their home, moved into two different shelters, and then were moved into temporary housing. That is a significant amount of change for a child to experience and process.
My deployment experience taught me so much about myself as a person and Child Life Specialist. As a person, I truly stepped out of my comfort zone leaving my husband, family and job to volunteer with CDS and people that I’ve never met for a week. As a Child Life Specialist, working in the Emergency Room, I rarely have the time to play with my patients or facilitate group play activities. It was great to spend time playing with children and allowing them to play out what they experienced. If I could have stayed longer I definitely would in a heartbeat! The strangers I met on my team now feel like extended family members. I am so thankful for the training opportunity through Child Life Disaster Relief to become a Children’s Disaster Services volunteer. This deployment truly changed my appreciation for play, being flexible, exercising patience and pushing me to out of my comfort zone.
While we watch and pray for the best for Florida and surrounding states this weekend, we need all those who are certified with our partner Children’s Disaster Services and could potentially deploy for one or two weeks to be sure CDS has your availability by emailing SChastain@brethren.org. THANK YOU, Lisa Crouch, a Michigan CCLS who has deployed to Florida already with the first Irma CDS team. They are staying safe and ready to provide services to children quickly as the needs might arise.
If you are in Florida right now and are a certified child life specialist with interest in potentially helping as a local responder -even for just a day or two- in the coming weeks, please let us know through this link… AND PLEASE STAY SAFE!
If you are part of a child life department at a hospital in Florida, we are reaching out to your department today via email to offer supplies and resources and of course our support. Please feel free to contact us directly at info@CLDisasterRelief.org.
This was a message written on a piece of construction paper by a child at one of CDS’s play centers in a Texas shelter earlier this week. Whether this makes you smile or tear-up or both, it is a well-stated message.
Don’t you love how kids don’t always need words to communicate? PLAY is where it’s at! It is the modality of communication, expression, and processing especially when words don’t suffice.
We love how well child life specialists know and embrace this.
We also are at a loss for words ourselves right now— We are deeply moved by the child life community continuing to rally around Texas and now preparing to wrap around Florida in the same way, if needed.
How do we capture just how thankful we feel? ..to our partner, Children’s Disaster Services. …to Betsy, Stephanie, Kim, Liz, Zoe, Karla, Monika, Jessika, Abby & Leah who have been working with the kids in Texas. …to the local child life specialists certified with CDS who are already jumping in and ready to join the CDS teams as needed in the midst of their own busy responsibilities. …to all the others around the country who are ready to deploy or working to make arrangements to deploy in the coming weeks.
And what words can we use to describe how truly grateful we are for the donations of caring individuals and the overwhelming support of Child’s Play for our mission? There simply are no words!
So, we want to share with you some of the pictures– Since pictures, sometimes speak louder than our words can anyway.
*Pictures are property of Children’s Disaster Services and used with permission based on partnership with CLDR
On behalf of the kids affected by this tragedy. Thank you. Again and again.
Follow us on our new Instagram account (CLDisasterRelief) created by Liz Hines who is currently deployed in Dallas. Also, stay tuned for updates and blog posts giving a little taste of the teams’ experiences- coming soon!
CLDR now has 8 members deployed to Harvey and more are lining up ready to join Children’s Disaster Services teams stationed in shelters and resource centers. The dedication and generosity of the child life community is inspiring. Thanks to all who are willing to give their time to assist children in this great time of need! Thanks especially to all the child life specialists in Texas who have reached out to us ready and willing to jump in as they are able. The work being done today will greatly impact the lives of the children and families who have endured so much heartache.
Below are some photos shared by Stephanie Michel. Stephanie is a CCLS with Medical City Lewisville Hospital and works PRN with Children’s Health in Dallas. She started her relief efforts in a shelter located in San Antonio with 300 individuals. There are no words to sum up how grateful we are for all they are doing!
Currently the CLDR team is watching in horror with the rest of the world as Hurricane Harvey continues to decimate Houston and surrounding areas. We currently have 5 Certified Child Life Specialists with a team of 24 certified CDS volunteers deploying to assist. The challenges volunteers will face with the children impacted will no doubt be massive. Routines are gone, homes destroyed, and their sense of safety surely rattled. We will provide updates along the way as our first volunteers are already on the ground.
This disaster will not end when the rain stops and waters recede. Additional assistance will likely be needed. If you are CDS certified and have availability to deploy for 1-2 weeks in September please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are within driving distance to affected areas or shelters, we may be able to utilize your help for short-term deployments as well. As a reminder, approved deployments receive travel reimbursement.
If you would like to become a certified CDS volunteer so that you can deploy on behalf of CLDR in the future please visit our training page to sign up for a CDS training near you. We are also in need of local organizers and responders. If interested take a look at our opportunities page.
Our organization is able to respond to disasters thanks to the support of our CLDR members, our partners, and individual donations. We appreciate all donations to help us continue this work. Thank you to all as your dedication allows us to truly make a difference in times of crisis. Please keep the people of Texas, CLDR team, and the countless volunteers and service members who are giving their all to make a difference in your thoughts and prayers.
We are sending positive thoughts to the gulf coast, specifically Texas, as Tropical Storm Harvey is expected to make landfall as a level 3 Hurricane this weekend. We have 4 Certified Child Life Specialists ready to roll with the Children’s Disaster Services team should the need arise. Please keep everyone in your thoughts and prayers!
…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.
Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) has been asked by the American Red Cross to have two teams of volunteers ready to go to Oroville, CA, if needed to help assist as evacuations are underway. Residents are being evacuated after the spillway on a major dam began to break over the weekend. The Red Cross “is thinking that the mass shelter needs will continue to grow,” reports CDS associate director Kathy Fry-Miller. “They have over 2,000 people in shelters currently and are planning for 5,000 people for over 2 weeks.”
If you are trained & certified with CDS and able to deploy in the next 2 weeks (beginning in the next day or two), please contact Kathy Fry-Miller (Kfryemail@example.com) it would be helpful to put subject line:“Oroville Dam deployment availability.”