California Wildfires September 2015

I’m really glad I went and it was so evident how impactful my child life education and skills were. My team was made up of wonderful retired elementary teachers, special education teachers, preschool teachers, etc.  I could see how the education and experience in critical settings that we get as Child Life Specialists was unmatched and a great fit in this work. I’m not trying to boast about me, but just to encourage other Child Life Specialists how helpful they could be with Children’s Disaster Services!

We had a pretty great set up. Our center was set up in a library, behind where all of the stations for paper work were happening for the parents. We didn’t have a large space but it was safe and secluded. We had room for a quiet reading area with beanbags and a small area for dolls and stuffed animals next to it. We had a table for play dough and a table for card and board games or drawing. And we had an area for large motor play.

There was one kiddo who was 2 and really didn’t want to come in. He, understandably, was having a difficult time leaving his mom after the disaster of the fire. She came in to play with him during his drop off but when she left, he cried and wouldn’t stop. He got passed from CDS volunteer to volunteer but he was still crying and didn’t want to do anything. One of the volunteers said “Wait, Katie is a Child Life Specialist, let’s have her give it a try!” I laughed and went over to the child. He was sitting in the lap of another volunteer and I started reading “Harold And The Purple Crayon” and drawing with a purple crayon on a piece of paper. As I read, I drew what ever Harold was drawing. He stopped crying and was engaged in what I was reading and drawing. As I drew, I asked him questions to get him to participate in what I was drawing and asked him what I should add. He didn’t say anything but stayed engaged. I kept drawing until I finished the book. Then I started reading another book while I played with the cars on the road rug. After a while, he crawled off the volunteer’s lap and started playing with the cars too. I kept reading and playing with the cars and then eventually stopped reading and just played with the cars with him. Once his play started getting more animated, I stopped zooming the cars around and let him play independently. He played with the cars for a long time while I sat next to him and then a little girl came up and started playing with him. They played next to each other but didn’t necessarily play with each other. Then they both got up to go play with the play dough and made pies together. From that time on, he was content playing until his mom got there.She was so happy to see him playing again. She said he hadn’t played since the fire and she hadn’t seen him smile! It was rewarding to see him engage in play again and to go through the different stages of play. He went from onlooker to parallel to independent play with me, and then associative play to cooperative play with another child! 

This is a picture of them playing on the road rug together

We also had 6 boys come into the center, 3 sets of brothers from different families. One of the moms let me know that all of the boys went to school together and this was the first time they have all been together since the fire. Their school burned down in the fire and they’ve really been missing their friends! They were pretty wild but we were able to contain it safely and allow them to play a bean bag toss game that they got really into! They played back and forth for half an hour and then once they had run out of steam, I settled them into a game of Uno. Once they had that high energy game with their friends, they started opening up about their experience while quietly playing Uno. I didn’t prompt anything but they were just asking each other what had happened. It was really awesome to see the boys talking about their experiences and sharing together. A few of them wanted me to read them a book so we sat in the quiet reading area and I read quite a few books to them. In the middle of one of the books there was a picture of a bedroom, one of the boys said, “I used to have a closet too, but the fire took everything. I used to have a bed too, but it burned in the fire. But, mom and dad said when we rebuild, I get bunk beds!!” He was so genuinely excited about the new things that were to come. I was blown away by the resilience of children!

Me reading with some of the boys
Me reading with some of the boys
The boys playing a bean bag toss game
The boys playing a bean bag toss game








We stayed in one of the Red Cross shelters on cots. The shelter was about 60% volunteers and 40% clients.
We stayed in one of the Red Cross shelters on cots. The shelter was about 60% volunteers and 40% clients.


The town of Middletown, where we were stationed, was hit very badly by the fire. The fire jumped around a lot so there were placed like this where everything was destroyed. And then right beside it there would be a home in perfect condition, completely untouched.The town had so much hope though and they all banded together to help. Some families even chose to not evacuate so they could stay and help their neighbors. And they were so grateful to the firefighters and volunteers for everything that being done.



This was an apartment complex that was completely destroyed. There was covered parking, which you can see on the right, and the only thing left was the skeleton of the structure. I thought it was amazing that the playground was standing, bright and beautiful right in the middle of the rubble, completely untouched. 

playground survives fire


Working with Tiffany, a child life student from Concordia, was really fun! It was great to be able to bounce ideas off each other and talk about our child life journey. And we were amazed that we were the 2nd and 3rd child life to ever be deployed! We marveled in that a bit 🙂 She was a blast!



My trip was incredible and I was so thankful to be able to use my child life education to help the children cope with what had happened. The power of play was very evident! I cannot wait for my next deployment!
Child life specialists and Children’s Disaster Services is such a perfect fit!
God bless,
Katie Bertsch, CCLS
Grand Rapids, MI
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