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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Why Aren’t We Preparing Kids for Disaster

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Beal_Photo_sm Guest Blogger Heather Beal is a military veteran with 23 years of crisis management and operational planning experience that she draws upon daily in her battle to raise two well-prepared, happy, curious, and intelligent children. As a trained emergency manager and parent, she saw the need to provide age-appropriate disaster preparedness information to young children in a way that empowered rather than frightened them. She is currently writing additional books to cover a greater spectrum of potential disasters children may face.

“Generally speaking, we do not prepare our children for disaster. We make them hold our hand in the parking lot and talk about the dangers of getting burned by the stove, but we stop short of this really big “disaster” word. When I think about it, I can come up with a few excuses we call reasons as to why we don’t give this topic the attention that we should.

First, like our children, (but usually without donning the superhero capes and masks), we believe that we are invincible. It (the disaster) can’t happen to ‘us,’ it only happens to ‘others.’ Folks – look at Hurricane Harvey, Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and any other number of disasters. With that many people affected – the ‘us’ and the ‘others’ are the same people. We need to look at disaster as a probability, not a possibility.

Second, we think talking about disaster will be too scary. I get it. No one wants to tell children anything bad could happen. We all know our children could get terribly hurt running if hit by a car in the parking lot, but we don’t get into explicit details about injury and death. We do however, talk to them about being safe, making good choices, and not doing things that could more likely result in their getting hurt.

We should approach talking about disaster in the same way we approach other learning topics or the consequences of actions or inaction. We don’t need to focus on the destruction a tornado can cause, how their lives could be uprooted, or what other things could dramatically change. We can however, talk about what children need to do to stay as safe as possible.

There are no guarantees in life for anything. We can’t guarantee that a car in the parking lot won’t do something stupid, just as we can’t guarantee the tornado will miss a child’s house, school, or childcare. But we, as parents, as childcare providers, as educators, as caregivers, as emergency managers, and as community members, can arm our children with the tools to succeed. We owe them that.

Sounds good – but how would I know, right? Fair question. A few years ago I tried to explain to my then 4-year old daughter that she and her brother might be woken up in the middle of the night to go into the basement if there was a tornado warning. Of course, it was already dark and stormy (thunder and lightning and everything). Needless to say, I did a very poor job, ultimately scaring her and beating myself up about my failed attempt to mitigate later fear through a botched explanation. Never again I vowed.

That was when I discovered that almost no one was having the conversation with young kids (toddler, preschool, or kindergarten) about disaster. At the same time, I realized that disaster was not going to sit by patiently and wait until my children could calmly and rationally discuss everything at a grown up level. I decided I could develop a way to talk with them in a way that didn’t scare them, but instead empowered them by teaching them what to do and giving them back a little control in a typically uncontrollable situation. They might not be able to stop the disaster, but they could do something to increase their safety within it.

I started Train 4 Safety Press to develop picture books that would teach children what to do “if.” As I conducted research, I discovered a few books out there on the science of disaster, but almost none that taught young children what to do when the disaster was happening. Our first book Elephant Wind tackles what to do during a tornado. Tummy Rumble Quake teaches children about the Great ShakeOut™ and earthquake safety.

Children have a great capacity for building their own resilience. Teaching them how to protect themselves can have an exponential effect. Children could not only help themselves, they could help their classmates, their teachers, their family and their community. Isn’t anything that increases the odds we bring our children home after a disaster worth it? Can we afford not to talk about it?”

And here is a great resource: National Child Traumatic Stress Network

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