Do you currently work in Child Life? If so, tell us about your current position. If not, tell us about your Child Life history.
I became a Child Life Specialist in 2005 respecting the Association of Child Life Professional’s preference that instructors of child life coursework be certified. I had written a faculty development grant as a professor of Therapeutic Recreation to help majors become dually certified as a CTRS/CCLS by becoming a CCLS and developing two core child life courses. I provided casual coverage successive summers for CCLSs at St. Joseph Children’s Hospital and Clinics where I interned. I collaborated to involve majors with local child life specialists in Teddy Bear clinics, flu shot clinics, and Sibshops, and was an academic supervisor for internships and practicums. I retired from UW – La Crosse August 2016.
How long have you been connected with Child Life Disaster Relief and in what capacity (either directly or through our partnerships – Children’s Disaster Services, Camp Noah, etc.)? Briefly describe some of those experiences.
I completed my Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) training at an Association of Child Life Professionals preconference in 2015 but my academic role delayed deployment until retirement. I have served seven times with CDS including: 1) the Oroville, CA Flood and Dam in a shelter location 2/2017; 2) Hurricane Irma in two southwest Florida shelter locations 9/2017; 3) with a Critical Response Team for the Las Vegas shooting 10/2017; 4) to a Multi-Agency Resource Center for an Oklahoma wildfire 4/2018; 5) two weeks at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Refugee Center playroom in McAllen, TX 8/2018; 6) to a Family Assistance Center in Davenport for flooding 5/2019; and 7) to a shelter in Dayton 6/2019 for a tornado that struck Memorial Day weekend. See my blog post for the Oklahoma MARC 4/2018 and a newer post for the Memorial Weekend Tornado in Ohio 6/2018. My emerging theme song is Mister Rogers I’m Taking Care of You. I recognized girlhood moments with my dolly as the second oldest of nine siblings replayed in our Hurricane Irma playroom. Mister Rogers and my mother taught me that taking care of others and myself is important and a worthy purpose—childcare is a sacred trust:I’m taking care of you, I’m taking care of you, For once I was very little, too, Now I take care of you.
What made you interested in working with children after disasters?
The establishment of Child Life Disaster Relief was a perfect segway to sustain my enchantment with Child Life practice into retirement. The direct role of playing with children in an inspiriting team approach gives me enormous compassion satisfaction. I hold an abiding sense of “doing the right thing” living the timeless Red Cross humanitarian principles – HUMANITY- IMPARTIALITY- INDEPENDENCE- NEUTRALITY- UNITY- UNIVERSALITY- VOLUNTARY SERVICE. I made a word bracelet, a conversation starter for child advocacy and explaining again and again what a volunteer can do. It is my destiny to befriend and serve with amazing Children Disaster Service volunteers who pour their whole child-centered biographies into the kindest supportive interactions with children and families, to serve beside other CCLSs with superb play skills and ability to engender resilience, and to be nurtured by CCLS lifelines. I hope to serve beside my former students, now Certified Child Life Specialists and newly members of Child Life Disaster Relief.
What is your favorite memory from being involved?
I spent many hours facilitating play-doh at a round kid-sized table in the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Refugee Center play where our team of four interacted with up to 90 refugees a day. We made a culturally appropriate exception welcoming all ages, teens, and parents into the play center with child and adult coloring featuring a clothesline gallery, playing cards, puzzles, and Jenga. More typical activity stations for young children in this well-stocked Sunday school play area included dress-up, artmaking, mini cars, building blocks, and a play kitchen. We never photographed children, only play activities and what refugees crafted. We partitioned a rest space including a comfy tube with blankets where a weary parent could cuddle an infant or toddler and be assured of childcare if they fell asleep. When the team arrived each morning, children wrapped themselves around my tie-dye skirt with high fives and smiles eager to help reset the play center which doubles as a sleeping space, asking, “Senora, plasticina, plasticina (pla-doh)?”
Although I do not speak Spanish, I enjoyed a care partner alliance with a Honduran father traveling alone with his son with special needs. He made eye contact and gestured to me, lifting his son and kissing him, and set him down over a bookcase barrier into the center. The boy eyed the sturdy timber playhouse and I followed his lead. We crawled into the playhouse where I introduced two brothers to their new friend; then I set up the boy with various wooden latchboards placed on the outside window ledge where he could see Papa who stood smiling for hours. The next morning Papa set him again in the center to play and he raced to the play-doh table. After a few minutes, Papa motioned him to hand over a piece of his dough, quickly fashioned a gecko, and reached in and placed it on the edge of his son’s chair. Smiling and cherishing the moment, the boy placed the gecko in the center of the table.I snapped a photo, enlarged it, and panned it around where other makers remarked, “Bueno” or ”Hermoso incredible!” Tiny children along with school-agers vigorously shaped images of vehicles and roads as the tabletop morphed into a landscape of journeying.
As I packed for home on Day 13 of my deployment, I reached for my comfy driving shoes in the closet. I accidentally turned them over and recognized bits of fluorescent play-doh embedded in the rubber (along with chewing gum). I ran to show my teammate who excitedly snapped a shoe selfie. I cannot clean my shoes yet—they remain in a ziploc baggie to this day. My shoes are like the face painting you get at a fair that transforms you and you never want to wash it off.
What advice would you give to others who are thinking of working with children impacted by disasters?
My experience with the Peace Corps in Micronesia at age 35 helped me learn to be patient with the unknown and long wait times. Completing a Children’s Disaster Services training will give you experiential knowledge of whether you resonate with the disaster play center role which sometimes means hardship conditions such as sleeping on a cot surrounded by others, sharing communal bathrooms and showers, and driving vans and rental cars at night or in stormy conditions. The What’s Happening CLDR monthly archives contain honest first-hand experiences of deployment that usually become resilience narratives. A lot of the disaster work in the play center mimics how you interact and play with pediatric patients in the hospital setting. Prepaid travel and expenses, through established disaster partnerships, eases your experience so you don’t have to pay to volunteer. Fitness and conditioning are important to endure long days of active play, toting a heavy suitcase full of toys (i.e., “kits of comfort”), and helping others with luggage in hotels without elevators (smile). You may be surprised at your vulnerability to respiratory infections or flu among shelter populations; take along cold medicine, don’t hesitate to visit the shelter nurse, consider packing Emergen-C. Your teammates and their stories of deployment, the shining goodness of all disaster workers, and of course children and families, will lift you up and inspire you beyond measure.