Caregivers focus on children

BY JOSHUA LEWIS | Baltimore, MD | December 6, 1999

When members of the Church of the Brethren's Disaster Child Care (DCC) program worked with refugee children from Kosovo earlier this year, language wasn't a barrier. The volunteers could see what was flashing through the young minds.

In crayon and marker, the children drew pictures of what they had witnessed during the conflict that plagued their homeland: planes falling out of the sky, buildings exploding, death and destruction.

"And others painted pictures of home -- that they hadn't been in for weeks or months," said DCC Coordinator Lydia Walker. "And the children loved to play house. They would set up housekeeping and play with dolls and have their own kitchen and their own bed and all these things that they had not had, and so they would imagine them."

The caregivers, who are trained and certified, knew how to respond to the children's behavior.

"They just kind of sit back and marvel at how the children can figure some of this out for themselves," Walker said.

That's exactly the point of the extensive training that volunteers undergo before being allowed to participate in DCC -- which most recently joined with the American Red Cross in the response to the crash of Egyptair Flight 990 earlier this month.

The volunteers learn, in a sense, how to do nothing -- to create a safe place during a disaster where children can simply be themselves.

"There's actually things that we do that I call 'untraining,' " Walker said. "We have to remind people that we're not trying to socialize the children or teach them manners." They're not teaching academic skills or arts and crafts. They're not babysitting or doing therapy.

"That's all part of educating ourselves to be with a child where they are, what's happening to them -- through their eyes, not through our adult interpretation. And that's really the core of the training," she said.

Volunteers also learn how to listen better and to create a place with plenty of activities for the children.

The DCC program, which will celebrate its twentieth anniversary next year, is much more complex now than when it got its start in 1980 as a simple awareness that the needs of a large constituent of disaster survivors -- children -- were not being met.

"It was the recognition on the part of some people doing clean-up work after a disaster that there were a lot of children running around in these service centers with their families," Walker said.

"There wasn't anything for them to do and very often they were being ignored or neglected, because parents have got other things to do when they don't have a place to live and they need to collect the support from the Red Cross and from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).

"The idea was to provide something just for children that would take the load off the parents and the caseworkers but give the children something special that would be a time of quiet and healing and space that's their own where they could just be children," she said.

From that basic concept, DCC has grown to train some 2,500 volunteers who have served more than 50,000 children in the history of the program. Currently, DCC has 325 volunteers around the country ready to respond to disaster. More than 12,000 children have already filled their centers this year, from the tornado recovery in Oklahoma and Kansas to flood recovery in North Carolina, Walker said.

Roughly 40 percent of those are not members of the Church of the Brethren, said Stanley J. Noffsinger, manager of Emergency Response/Service Ministries at Church of the Brethren's general board.

Since 1984, many Church World Service member denominations have been active in DCC, including the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Christian Reformed Church, Lutheran Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Noffsinger said.

"And that's the beauty of it. We are honored to lead the charge, if you will, but we are grateful for the participation of the ecumenical community."

DCC not only attracts the involvement of many denominations but many types of people, as well.

Many, of course, are retirees who have the time to commit to extended stays during disaster recovery. But others are younger adults with strong extended families to look after their own children, in addition to seminary and college students.

And the challenges can sometimes be daunting. While providing care to the Kosovar refugee children housed at Fort Dix, an Army base in New Jersey, volunteers were exposed to various types of flus and colds -- even head lice. "You know, I mean, all the things you might find in a refugee camp," Walker said.

"It was a pretty strenuous experience for our childcare people, and right down to the last one of them, they write letters back saying it was just a life-changing experience."

"It's a gem," Noffsinger said of the program. "It's an incredible ministry, and it's one that's deeply loved by everyone that comes in contact with it."

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