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Team helped children cope with air disaster

BY P.J. HELLER | LOS ANGELES, Calif. | February 7, 2000

For almost one week, Gloria Cooper and Sharon Gilbert have watched the tragedy of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 unfold -- through the eyes of children.

Cooper and Gilbert were part of a seven-member team of specially trained faith-based child-care workers who responded to the Monday,

Jan. 31, crash off the California coast which killed all 88 people aboard.

The response was organized by the Church of the Brethren through an agreement with the American Red Cross. It marked the second time

in less than three months that a full-scale response was launched by Disaster Child Care (DCC); the first was in November in response to the

crash of Egyptair Flight 990 in which 217 people were killed.

Cooper, of Pasadena, Calif., and Gilbert, of Santa Ana, Calif., -- both of whom were part of the team that responded to the Egyptair crash --

were quickly joined by five other child-care workers as part of DCC's specialized CAIR (Child Aviation Incidence Response) team.

As friends and relatives of the victims of the MD-83 jetliner crash arrived here, the CAIR team was available to provide child care. During the week, they watched over children ranging in age from 1 year old to about 12 or 13 years of age.

The exact number of children they cared for was not immediately known. However, as of 4 p.m. Sunday, the team said it had logged 100 check-ins and check-outs of youngsters from the hotel room where it set up operations.

The room opened on Feb. 1, one day after the Alaska Airlines flight plummeted into the Pacific Ocean while en route from Puerto Vallarta,

Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle. Friends and relatives of the victims gathered here to visit the crash site off the coast near Oxnard, and attend a memorial service on Saturday.

Another memorial service is planned for Monday (Feb. 7) in San Francisco. Six members of the CAIR team will be there, to again provide

child care.

"There is a great deal of satisfaction you get from doing it," said Judy Gump of Broomfield, Colo. "You work very very hard. But there's such a sense of satisfaction. There's a sense of accomplishment when you can see the effect of what your doing on the children - and you literally can see it and hear it. So you know you're meeting some very immediate needs."

John Kinsel of Dayton, OH, a child and family therapist, said the role of the child-care workers is to provide youngsters with a place to come

where they can feel safe.

"We try to create a place in the midst of a lot of goings on and a lot of grieving and a lot of adult-oriented activities that is child friendly and that is a safe haven," he said.

Kinsel said the room for the children, filled with things such as table games, puzzles, toys, stuffed animals and paints, is like a cocoon where the youngsters can come to escape from all the outside activities and "just be kids."

Cooper said the children here had lost grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on the flight.

Providing child care not only helps the youngsters, but takes some of the pressure off their parents, she noted.

In cases where the mother is the primary care-giver and is grieving, she becomes "emotionally unavailable" for her child, Cooper noted. "It's a real challenge for the child."

"We felt that this particular set of children responded very well to the service we provided," Kinsel noted. "We had a number of children who sought every opportunity they could to come and be with us. That's usually a good indication that we're meeting their needs.

"We had one little girlÉ unless she was involved in a specific activity with her family, she chose on her own to come and be with us," he

recalled. "That meant a lot to us and we think meant a lot to her. We got to know her mother very well, and I believe it was very helpful to

her mother as well to know that her daughter was in a safe place."

The child-care center typically stayed open from 8 or 9 in the morning until 10 at night.

"These are long days, full days, stressful days and very enriching days," Kinsel said.

Though organized through a denominational group, the services provided by the child-care workers are ecumenical, and they are trained not to preach to children or to offer them therapy. The team members profess a variety of faiths themselves. For example, Cooper, the acting administrator in the Alaska Airlines disaster, and 78-year-old Betsy Fisher, who also responded to Los Angeles, are both United Methodists.

For the most part, the CAIR members said their goal was simply to "be there" for the children.

Gump said she felt the children appreciated the effort.

"When the children would make a comment or two about their grandparents being on the plane, it was so touching to be told that because

they (the children) were inviting us to join them in their world," she said. "That doesn't happen unless the child feels a very strong sense of trust and safety and security. It's such a privilege to have them invite us in and be included in their world."

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