…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!
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.