Childcare vital after plane crash

BY SUSAN KIM | Newport, RI | November 8, 1999

While families of the Egyptair Flight 990 crash attended a multi-faith memorial service by the sea on Nov. 7, Sharon Gilbert was

performing a vital service on behalf of the Church of the Brethren's Disaster Child Care (DCC) program.

For nearly two decades, DCC has been training disaster child care volunteers who stand ready to provide child care at disaster

sites anywhere in the U.S. DCC's response after the Egyptair crash is the result of a new agreement between the Church of the

Brethren and the American Red Cross.

"We were able to fit our role and our services within the overall emergency response," said Lydia Walker, DCC's coordinator.

Walker, Gilbert, and other volunteers were an integral part of response last week to the tragic crash in which 217 perished.

Gilbert, who has offered post-disaster childcare services for more than 10 years, said that this incident was different because of

the totality of the grief and the fact that many of the grieving families are far from home.

"In a hurricane, it's a very intense situation, but often, because people are home, they have local resources -- their friends,

housing, and so on," she said. "Another difference is that the loss is most often of objects on a grand scale -- not always, but


After the plane crash, children -- and adults -- struggle to answer the question 'why,' she said.

"In other disasters they can blame it on the wind, the rain," said Gilbert, but there is no causal identifier as of yet for the crash.

Gilbert, who is also a licensed therapist, said that the children have tended to be more regressive and preoccupied than usual.

"We had a three-year-old who spent some time imitating a crying baby," she said. "She was pretending, but it was such a

real-sounding cry that people thought we were caring for a baby."

Later, Gilbert added, as the child felt more safe, she was able to look around and focus on other activities. "She was able to set

that aside."

Gilbert said that children's play often reflects their state of emotion in a post-disaster situation. "After the riots in south-central

L.A., the children's play was very aggressive and hyperactive," she said. "It felt like there was no element of trust."

Gilbert and her fellow team members cared for more than 15 children during the past week, the youngest 11 months and the

oldest 15 years. There are usually five members on a childcare team, all of whom are willing to leave their own homes and

families to travel to the scene of a disaster, ideally within eight hours after it happens.

Their job -- caring for children immediately after trauma -- is challenging. Special training has taught them to identify typical

emotional responses in children, supervise healthy play activities, and interact with grieving families as a whole.

Though organized through the Church of the Brethren, DCC's services 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.

"We don't direct the children with what to do," said Gloria Cooper, another caregiver. "We let the child make the choices."

That sense of openness and inclusiveness has been especially important in the wake of the Egyptair tragedy because of the

diverse religions and cultures of the people affected.

"This was a mixed religious community," said Cooper. "To me, this week has reinforced that we are all one. One of the families

we've been serving is Egyptian, and the mother, who can't speak English very well, came in this morning, and sat with one of

our caregivers. Just watching them interact was incredibly touching."

Childcare is vital because it takes some pressure off parents who are grieving themselves, signing paperwork, or arranging


"It also frees up parents to support each other in their grief. In this case, one parent is usually the close relative, and the other is

supporting the spouse."

Because some families had already left the response headquarters, some members of the childcare team were able to attend the

multi-faith service yesterday. Officiated by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic spiritual leaders, the service ended with families

walking through a Corridor of Honor, formed by caregivers, grief counselors, American Red Cross representatives, public

officials, military and Coast Guard personnel, and others.

The grieving families picked up a flower at the beginning of the corridor, then dropped the flower into a basket that was loaded

onto a Coast Guard helicopter to be dropped into the water near where the plane went down.

"The service had a real sense of a community gathering," said Cheryl Dekker, a childcare team member who was part of the

Corridor of Honor along with her husband.

"But one of the most touching things was on our way to the service, when the buses passed people in the community, they just

got out of their cars, and some of the men put their hats over their hearts. A woman raised her hands in a symbol of prayer.

This was such a great addition to the organized activity."

Dekker, who is from Norfolk, Neb. where she attends the First United Methodist Church, added that it takes a whole faith

community to respond to a tragedy like this. "Our church is praying for us, and our own children are with my parents. I'm

proud to be able to do this," she said.

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