Child Life & Art Therapy in Disaster Shelters: The Humanity Factor

DSCF2017

During these recent days of hurricanes, tornados, fires and violence, it is hard to know in which direction to turn – what to focus on – where to put our energies. Fred Rogers taught us all to “look for the helpers”, and I always find that calming and inspiring, so I have decided to republish a piece that I cowrote with Tara Lynch Horan after we coordinated services at a shelter in NYC following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It gives a taste of what child life specialists and art therapists can do to ease the suffering of children in times of upheaval.

In addition, tapping into our ability to BE the helpers can also assist us in making sense of tragedy. In this vain, I attended a training this past weekend given by  Children’s Disaster Services  in coordination with the Child Life Disaster Relief organization. It was empowering, and I highly recommend the training to anyone who wishes to volunteer to provide safe play opportunities for children following disasters. You can do this locally or be deployed to other states in the USA. And if you can’t lend a hand, donations to organizations like these can still make a difference and impact quality of life for children.

Here is the article reprinted from Vilas, D. & Lynch Horan, T. (2013). Trees, Houses and Sidewalk Cities: Child Life and Creative Arts Interventions at a Post-Sandy Shelter.  New York Association for Play Therapy Newsletter, January 2013, 16 (2).

“A phone call from a Naval Commander stationed at a shelter in  NYC sparked the —-  Shelter Creative Arts Therapy / Child Life Initiative Mission. Commander Moira McGuire headed up a mental health team at the shelter serving many families. As a behavioral health nurse, she saw the need for therapeutic activities for the approximately 50 children facing displacement and uncertainty. In response to her outreach, a consortium of Creative Arts Therapists and Child Life Specialists quickly assembled. Our goal was to provide therapeutic creative arts opportunities to children and families post Hurricane Sandy. We hoped to facilitate psychosocial coping and adjustment to the stress and potential trauma of the Hurricane experience and to the stressors of the shelter environment. The first team of volunteers that responded within 24 hours numbered 14 and included 11 child life specialists who were colleagues, alumni or current students from the Bank Street College of Education, along with two art therapists and one dance and movement therapist.

We would like to share some of the techniques that we employed successfully during the two weeks that the shelter was in operation. Leyla Akca, an art therapist, brought paper shopping bags in on that first day. She led children in an activity that explored the “stuff “we carry with us daily, and the invisible stuff we carry on the inside no matter where we are. It was a powerful metaphor, and the children took to it eagerly, decorating their bags with many open-ended materials. Leyla had previously participated in disaster relief in Turkey following earthquakes there. She had a lot of wisdom to share with us all, and her activity gave us focus and purpose.

DSCF2016

Maryanne Verzosa, a child life specialist from St. Lukes Roosevelt Hospital, supplied found objects from nature, which included sticks and twigs. As she gathered children in a circle sitting on the floor of the shelter, the children spontaneously created three-dimensional houses out of the materials. One child presented his stick house to his uncle, saying, “This is for you because you lost your house.” Commander McGuire had asked us to bring sidewalk chalk with us, as the children had access to an outdoor patio. Her instincts were perfect. A six year-old boy spent all afternoon creating a chalk city of roads, “for the children”, and buildings. We provided the child with miniature buildings and figures for his chalk city, and the play continued and drew other children into its circle.

images-2

One of the final activities took place during the last day when families were moving out of the shelter, many of them to hotels. Tara Lynch Horan, a child life specialist, worked with several art therapists on a community project of building a mural tree and decorating it with leaves representing what families leaned on during Sandy‟s aftermath. The art therapists worked with the children creating the tree, while Tara went from cot to cot, engaging parents in depicting their resiliency factors on precut leaves made from construction paper.

The collaboration of Child Life and Creative Arts Therapists brought about many therapeutic moments for these children and families. The activities employed a variety of directive and open-ended techniques. As we would expect, the children and parents created their own meaning and healing. All they needed was the time, space, materials and gentle encouragement from trained therapeutic agents. Humanity at its best.”

One thought on “Child Life & Art Therapy in Disaster Shelters: The Humanity Factor

  1. Dear Deb,
    Having just spent a week in a hurricane shelter with my elderly Dad, your article is filled with wise and loving advice. Thank you, as always, for your timely wisdom and support.
    Betsy W.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s