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Kids get post-storm care

If Donna Uhlig has a bad day, she just has to sit down and play with kids at the Church of the Brethren Disaster Child Care Centers she manages in Florida.

BY HEATHER MOYER | ORLANDO, Fla. | September 1, 2004


"A lot of times they'll draw what's inside of them, and most of them will draw pictures that are very understandable."

—Helen Stonesifer


If Donna Uhlig has a bad day, she just has to sit down and play with kids at the Church of the Brethren Disaster Child Care Centers she manages in Florida.

"All I have to do is pick up a kid and put him in my lap, and that makes my day," she laughed. Uhlig manages the disaster childcare centers in Orlando and Kissimee, both located at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster field offices.

Four childcare centers were set up in Florida after Hurricane Charley. The centers in western Florida are set up at American Red Cross (ARC) stations in Wauchula and Englewood. All are set up in these ARC and FEMA centers so that parents can focus on registering for help or picking up what they need instead of worrying about their children.

"We give them the freedom to not have to worry about their kids while they focus on their needs and getting their families back on track," said Helen Stonesifer, director of the Church of the Brethren Disaster Child Care program.

Since the childcare centers opened, they have served over 400 children. Yet now with Hurricane Frances looming in the Atlantic, Stonesifer said they're evacuating all the childcare volunteers until the storm blows through. "This is just temporary as the (FEMA and ARC) centers also close," she explained. "Our volunteers will return when it's safe."

The childcare centers offer therapeutic play through drawing, painting and modeling clay. The volunteers do not ask the kids any questions about their experiences, but they will listen if the kids want to talk. Stonesifer said many of the children at the centers have been weepy and very easily upset. Uhlig said how the children are feeling also comes through in the way they play.

"A lot of times they'll draw what's inside of them, and most of them will draw pictures that are very understandable," she said. "Play dough is also very expressive, sometimes they'll pound it into shapes."

The childcare volunteers work two-week shifts - and find it very rewarding. They also know it's very helpful for the kids and parents. "It's a good kind of exhausted knowing that you helped," said Uhlig, who has been working as a childcare volunteer with Church of the Brethren for 12 years now. "If you're working with 20 kids and one has a breakthrough, it'll make your whole trip."

Uhlig added that she doesn't get to work with the children as often now that she's managing the centers, but she'll play with them whenever she gets the chance. "I love kids, that's why I do this."

During the Hurricane Charley response thus far, she has seen stress in both kids and parents. But not all kids are having a rough time. "Really, it's based on how the parents are coping." She explained that if the kids are seeing their parents overwhelmed with stress, then it makes them uneasy as well.

Uhlig, who lives in New Enterprise, Pa., started volunteering with the childcare program during Hurricane Andrew. At first, she was the only one in her church who did such work - but since she started, several other church members volunteered as well.

"I've got a great support system," she laughed.

Stonesifer said 23 volunteers have been sent into Florida since they started the childcare centers. Once Frances rolls through, more will be sent in. She added that the preschool of the Presbyterian Church in hard-hit Port Charlotte just requested a Church of the Brethren volunteer team as well.

The Church of the Brethren childcare response will be there for the long-term recovery, according to Stonesifer. She said there will definitely be a need for it, which has been demonstrated during their weeks in Florida thus far.

"Their whole lives have been interrupted, the kids may not understand what's going on, and many of them even lost all their toys," said Stonesifer. "Some may have even lost a family member or even a pet. It's hard for kids."

But the volunteers will help any way they can, she added. "It's often hard to for families to understand why we came so far to help them, but it's just what we're supposed to do."


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