No one is ever fully prepared for a disaster, and that is especially true for children. As Hurricane Gustav barreled toward landfall last week, residents along the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast bundled up their children, grabbed what necessities they could and fled the killer storm's onslaught. They sought high ground and shelter.
In the mad dash to evacuate, what often gets left behind, what doesn't make it into the trunk or onto the bus, are childrens toys, games, puzzles, or coloring books.
Enter the Church of the Brethren.
Since 1980, the Church of the Brethren Children's Disaster Services (CDS) has been taking care of the needs of child evacuees at relief shelters across the country.
"We watch the children," says CDS Associate Director Judy Bezon. "We give the parents a respite."
On August 31, the day before Gustav struck, CDS volunteers from as far away as Buffalo, New York, were on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi setting up childcare centers inside evacuation shelters.
Children whose families have evacuated to a shelter either before or after a disaster are often under a great amount of stress, Bezon explains. Their routine has been disrupted, their toys are gone, and they may not understand what's going on or why they've had to leave their homes.
"We focus on creating a warm and nurturing environment, a lot of individual attention so the kids can relax and be kids," Bezon says.
CDS volunteers bring toys and games to stimulate the children's imagination -- cars, dolls, books, play dough, tools for drawing and painting -- and things to give them comfort, like blankets and pillows.
"We do what we can to set up centers so that something will appeal to everyone," Bezon says. Volunteers are trained to listen if the children choose to open up about their feelings. "If not, they can just relax and be a kid," she says.
CDS has a cadre of 500 volunteers ready to go at a moment's notice. To be considered, applicants must have two letters of recommendation and pass criminal and sex offender background checks. Then they undergo a 27-hour training course.
"We teach them about disaster," Bezon says. "We teach them about children, and we teach them about the role of play and how children express themselves and their concerns through play and fantasy, and we teach them how to work with those kids."
CDS volunteers come from all faith denominations. Most deploy to disaster areas for two-week rotations.
In 2005, following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, CDS had volunteer teams in the field until September 2007.
In response to Hurricane Gustav, CDS opened children centers in three shelters -- Bay St. Louis, Ms., and Shreveport and Alexandria, La. Twenty-nine volunteers are currently staffing the three shelters.
Friday, Bezon shifted some volunteers from the Shreveport center to the shelter in Alexandria to try to handle the increasing demand at the state's new 3,500-person shelter.
"We shift according to the need," she says. "The needs there are just so great."
Another 30 volunteers are on standby to relieve those at the shelters next week.
"We'll keep open as long as we need to," Bezon says.
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