On September 17th, a group of 10 volunteers from Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) and Child Life Disaster Relief (CLDR) and I landed in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina to respond to and provide support for children and families affected by Hurricane Florence. We eagerly piled our personal belongings and kits of comfort (supplies and toys meant to facilitate expression) into rental cars and set out for Wilmington, North Carolina, an area by the coast that had experienced extensive flooding and property loss or damage.

As a child life specialist who has worked in a variety of settings both in America and abroad, I thought I knew what to expect for my first hurricane CLDR response. While I was prepared to support children and families, I was surprised by how difficult it was to access the children and families, an experience which taught me a greater empathy for and understanding of the lived experiences of the many people we later came to work with and a deep gratitude for everyone working together in response and recovery.

We spent the first few days of our two-week deployment driving, winding our way through the interstates and back roads of North Carolina in an attempt to make it to where we had been told we were most needed. We traded laughter and stories behind the wheel and GPS, anxious, excited anticipation making us giddy as we drove past swollen rivers, downed trees and power lines, closed roads, and flooded fields. We slept in shelters as we went and made friends with Red Cross workers, the army, and National Guard, but, despite these first few days of giddy navigation, the power and devastation of Hurricane Florence did not become totally real until two days into our trek. As we drove down the interstate, our three-car caravan came to a section of roadway submerged in what looked to the front cars like passable water. The front two cars made it, but those of us in the rear of the caravan stalled out halfway through.

The emotions I felt as I grabbed the belongings I had on my lap and extracted myself from the vehicle, stomping through the water to the dry section of roadway was a feeling I felt myself returning to in reflection throughout the rest of my time in North Carolina. Unlike the children and families with whom we later worked, everything I owned was either back safely at home or packed in the backpack with which I waded out. While the situation was uncomfortable and unexpected, to say the least, no one got hurt, no supplies were lost, and everything came to a quick resolution as we worked with fellow traveling disaster and rescue workers to divide our supplies into the other vehicles and continue onwards to our destination. The fear I felt and the emotions of my teammates during our own small disaster spoke volumes about what the children and families we would later meet might have experienced.

The incident with the van redirected our group to West Bladenboro where we worked with children and families for a few days before arriving and setting up at our final destination in Wilmington, North Carolina. In both locations, we worked with children and families of all ages, developmental levels, and experiences, some as young as 7 days and others as old as 21 years who had lost their homes, did not know whether they had a home to go back to, or who were homeless before the hurricane arrived. We offered all sorts of activities and supplies to help the children and families process their experiences through play, such as figurines, blocks, and rescue vehicles, pretend medical and construction play items, cardboard boxes, bubbles, and art supplies. In both locations, the opportunity for messy play became the most popular. Children mixed slime or oobleck and watched it ooze and squish between their fists, keeping it neatly enclosed in a container or spilling it out onto table tops and cutting it with play dough knives and cookie cutters as they gained full control over the mess and chose where and what their mess became.

Towards the end of our stay in Wilmington, the messy play took on a new direction. In addition to slime, we offered the children a tear and paste collage activity, granting them the opportunity not only to rip pieces of colored paper to shreds, but also to create something from that which they destroyed. As I sat with the group, listening to their conversation and helping to distribute more paper and glue, I was amazed at the direction the activity took. Not only did the children work together to create four exquisite pieces from the shreds they created, but they also chose to pair those pieces with words of thankfulness and to distribute those pieces to staff in the school turned shelter. The positive impact their gifts had on the school administrators, police officers, medical staff, and Red Cross workers augmented the activity as the children not only created beauty from destruction, but also arrived at a place of gratitude for what they had at that moment in that shelter and felt empowered to give back to those who had been helping them, inspiring us all to a grateful resilience.

– Elise Hebel, CCLS, MS