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Kids get care after Isabel

The children are the ones who are often forgotten in times of disaster," said Helen Stonesifer, coordinator of the Church of the Brethren's Emergency Response Disaster Child Care.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | October 9, 2003


"One woman said that this was the first place her child could play since the hurricane went through."

—Jean Myers


"The children are the ones who are often forgotten in times of disaster," said Helen Stonesifer, coordinator of the Church of the Brethren's Emergency Response Disaster Child Care.

To make sure that kids in disaster areas get the attention they need, the ERDCC set up child-care programs at six different Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery centers in Virginia, she said. Three were established in the Hampton Roads area (the metropolitan area that includes Newport News as well as Norfolk, Va.), and the largest of these operations was headquartered in Poquoson. The others were located in Staunton, Gloucester and Richmond.

Immediately following Isabel, the Brethren got right to work in flood-damaged areas of Virginia, Stonesifer said. Within 24 hours after getting called up, volunteers will have a center ready for kids. This time was no exception to the rule, Stonesifer said. The ERDCC volunteers were called up Sept. 22, and they were signing in kids the next day.

"They pack up and leave almost as soon as they get the call," she said. They don't plan to spend time in comfort; they sleep on American Red Cross cots just like everybody at the center where they are working.

Jean Myers, a veteran ERDCC coordinator from Sinking Springs, Penn., ran the effort of 13 other volunteers at the six sites. Myers decided on Oct. 5 to shut down the sites, after having helped out 235 children since Sept. 23.

"One woman said that this was the first place her child could play since the hurricane went through," she said.

The childcare centers are pretty standard except that all volunteers are specially trained to work with children who may have been traumatized by disasters. And then there are the specially selected toys, which are chosen for their capacity to encourage children to talk about their fears and worries.

"A number of children are afraid it's going to happen again," Myers said, "especially when it's raining."

Paints, easels, and other art supplies are perhaps the best tools to get kids to open up, she said.

"One little girl kept painting pictures of rain drops, of bigger and bigger rain drops," she said.

Another young boy, according to Stonesifer, painted a portrait of Jesus. When the boy was asked why he chose to paint Jesus, he replied, "Because Jesus is going to come and help me rebuild my house."

Then there are fairly prosaic toys, like Matchbox cars except that all the vehicles are police cars, or ambulances, or tow trucks. Presenting the children with toys that model a traumatic reality is another way of passively encouraging them to discuss their difficult experiences.

"All those things encourage them to talk about what they've just been through," she said.

One of the more unusual items, which is nonetheless effective, is a pan filled with rice.

"It's intriguing to begin with, most children have never played with rice," Myers said. "A number of the children will pour it in the pan and say it sounds like rain."

The most important aspect of this playful, therapeutic environment, she said, is that the children are not forced to talk about the disaster.

"We do not question the children," she said . "We provide them the opportunity to talk if they wish. With any traumatic experience it's always helpful to talk."

And if talking brings out emotions that are too much for the child to control, the Brethren volunteers make sure to have a mental health worker on hand to counsel the child.


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