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Kids express feelings on crash anniversary

BY P.J. HELLER | Oxnard, CA | February 1, 2001

There were plenty of puzzles and Play-Doh. Colorful crayons and construction paper. Books and blankets. Cars, trucks, and other assorted toys. There was even a blown-up beach ball and a bunch of blocks.

Other than the fact that this childcare facility was down the hall in a hotel here -- in what normally would have been a meeting room or an office -- visitors would have been hard-pressed not to think that they had stumbled into a preschool or kindergarten classroom.

But this room was no ordinary childcare center or school. Rather, it was specially designed to meet the needs of children who lost family

members or relatives in the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 exactly one year ago yesterday. "What we have here is an attempt to let the children express where they are at this moment," explained Sharon Gilbert, a member of Disaster Child Care's specialized CAIR -- Child Aviation Incidence Response -- unit. "What we offer are opportunities to play, to feel safe, and to know that there's a warm place in the world for them."

That can be especially critical when parents or other adult family

members are coping with the stress and trauma of losing a friend or

relative. Five CAIR team members, along with about six other trained

local caregivers, have been offering childcare this week to families

gathered here to mark the one-year anniversary of the crash of Flight

261.

The aircraft, en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and continuing on to Seattle, plunged into the Pacific Ocean about 10 miles off Point Mugu, CA. All 88 people aboard the MD-83 jetliner were killed. Several memorial events were held in the area on Tuesday and Wednesday, attracting hundreds of family members and friends of the victims. Some of those attending came from as far away as New

Zealand, Fiji, and the Philippines.

The childcare center opened at noon Monday and gave those who had

come here with their children a place to leave their youngsters in a safe and caring environment. "It keeps the children from all that adult-type of conversation and grief," explained Gloria Cooper, CAIR member and the childcare administrator here. "They know that Mommy or Daddy is upset and all these other people are upset . . . It protects them in a children's environment that's safe and fun."

While adults on a boat scattering ashes at the crash site or viewing the recovered pieces of the plane in a warehouse at the Naval Base Ventura County Port Hueneme, their children were back at the hotel drawing pictures, listening to stories, or having some quiet time laying on a blanket and pillow on the floor. About half a dozen youngsters, including a five-month-old baby, were being cared for on Wednesday morning, shortly before the dedication of a memorial marker on the beach at the Naval Base Ventura County Point Mugu.

About 12 to 14 youngsters were expected at the center as the day wore on. The center was open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Disaster Child Care (DCC) program was developed by the Church of the Brethren through an agreement with the American Red Cross. Level 1 trainees go through 27 hours of training, including a disaster simulation; CAIR members are selected based on their professional backgrounds and their experience in responding to disasters.

Everyone works as a volunteer without pay. For Gilbert, Cooper, and several others here, it marked the second time they had run a childcare facility for children affected by the Flight 261 crash. A similar operation was set up here last year when the Alaska Airlines flight crashed and family members and relatives traveled to Ventura County to witness recovery operations.

The childcare workers do not offer therapy. If a clinician such as Gilbert notices a youngster with a particular problem, she will refer it to Red Cross mental heath professionals. The ecumenical group also does not preach to children. CAIR members, like 79-year-old Betsy Fisher of Columbia, MD, said they are often asked why they do what they do. "I've always loved being with children," said Fisher, who worked as a nursery school and kindergarten teacher and later as a geriatric social worker but who said she "wanted to come back to the children."

"I think I get back more than I put into it," she said. "If you can help just one child to get through a crisis by just having fun or

listening to his or her story, it's all worthwhile."


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