Children Have Disaster Consequences Too: CDS Serves in Colorado Following Floods

Photo by Patty Henry
Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) volunteer Virginia White serves in Longmont, Colo., following the recent extreme flooding in that state.

By Dick McGee

The following report on the work of Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) in Longmont, Colo., following the extreme flooding in the state, was provided by the American Red Cross. A team of CDS volunteers has been serving at the Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC) in Longmont. The team will finish up tomorrow and travel home on Sunday, reports Roy Winter, associate executive director of Brethren Disaster Ministries.

Disaster relief services are not just for grown-ups. The American Red Cross is continually aware that one of its biggest challenges is providing services for the most fragile and dependent members of an impacted community. That means looking out for the children, and the senior citizens, who may be least able to care for themselves.

A large number of children, from toddlers to teens, are among the several thousand persons who are still receiving assistance from the Red Cross, FEMA, and many other community agencies nearly three weeks after the Colorado floods. Children suffer the loss of their safety, and their possessions just like their parents do. The consequences of a disaster are made all the more serious, and potentially destructive, for children who cannot verbalize their inner-most thoughts and feelings the way adults do. The effect on a child’s developing personality often goes unnoticed by parents, who are trying to cope with their loss by becoming totally submerged in the clean-up effort, and in the burden of applying for FEMA and other available assistance. When children need special attention, they often regress to unacceptable behaviors like stubborn defiance or temper tantrums, which may earn them punishment or scolding, instead of love and understanding.

Photo by Patty Henry
Rice play with children affected by flooding helps in the recovery in Colorado. Shown here, CDS volunteer Phyllis Hochstetler serves children and families in a MARC in the area of Longmont north of Denver.

Aware of this critical situation, the Red Cross has contracted with the Church of the Brethren Children’s Disaster Services, headquartered in New Windsor, Md., to support the needs of youngsters in disaster impacted areas. A team of six specially trained and certified Children’s Disaster Service workers was deployed to set up a therapeutic play room at the Disaster Assistance Center at the Twin Peaks Mall in Longmont. “We will stay here as long as we are needed,” promised Patty Henry, the team leader. “As long as there is one child who benefits from spending time in our play room, there is work for us to do,” she added.

Their concept of therapeutic child play has some unique features. For example, the children are not allowed to bring their own toys to the play room. Instead, these workers depend totally on creative play that allows the kids to put their own personal spin on the disaster. Coloring books are not allowed, because only original, creative drawings enable to child to put themselves and their own, unique emotions on the paper.

Photo by Patty Henry
CDS volunteers in Longmont, Colo., noted children playing “rice rescue” in which a Super Man toy helps out other toys who are buried in floods of rice. It is this kind of creative, imaginative play that aids children in their emotional recovery from disasters.

Patty, who has spent 23 years as a teacher in early childhood education, explained one example of what a child encounters in the playroom. A favorite toy is a puzzle in which large wooden pieces can be inserted on a backboard to recreate a familiar scene. The puzzle is introduced to a child as a pile of pieces, broken and strewn around the table like the chaotic debris they witnessed at home as the waters receded. As they work with the pieces, learning the details of each, and fitting them all back together properly to reconstruct what was damaged, children experience some control over their environment. “After rebuilding that puzzle two or three times, a child becomes visibly more relaxed and cheerful,” Patty observed.

It doesn’t take an expert to recognize that these children are being enabled to cleanse their young psyches of memories, feelings, and fears that could become emotional toxins in their still developing personalities and grow into more serious mental problems down the road.

“Children come and play with us while their parents are making the rounds to apply for the services they need here at the DAC. When you help a child, you help the entire family. Mothers are able to leave their children in our care, while they handle things that require their full attention. We are a respite service as well as a play therapy service,” Patty explained.

The American Red Cross has developed an elaborate organization to provide for the physical needs of anyone seriously impacted by a disaster, and the partnership with Children’s Disaster Services enables the Red Cross to provide that necessary attention to the emotional needs of “the least of these among us.”

For more information about Children’s Disaster Services go to www.brethren.org/cds .