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Safe Haven for Children After Disaster - Healing Through Play

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Children need a place that is soothing and calming and to relieve frustration and anxiety...

“How do you go into an adverse situation and create a safe space for children?”

The volunteers of the Children’s Disaster Services Team strive to do just that each time they are deployed into a disaster zone to try to help children process and cope with frightening and uncertain conditions during or following a disaster.  

Candy Iha, a Hawaii local and pediatric nurse,  leads a team of four who provide supervision and a safe space for children, alternating between the shelter in Pahoa, HI and Kea’au, HI, following the evacuation of hundreds of people whose homes were in the path of lava flow from Kilauea.

“We never ask questions about what happened to them, but concentrate on providing a calm and safe place for them to play,” said Patricia Sprinkle, who has been a dedicated volunteer for over 20 years.  “Parents need respite care to shower, nap, and make necessary phone calls, and, while we require them to be somewhere on the shelter property, they are free to do that,” she said. “Children need a place that is soothing and calming and to relieve frustration and anxiety in a constructive way--we provide that to them.”

The team brings with them a large suitcase of toys, games and art supplies that include several different therapeutic items.    They always bring replica vehicles, in particular emergency vehicles, which children often use to re-enact a rescue or evacuation, playdoh and utensils, a rug to sit on the floor, dolls, a medical kit, blankets, books, markers, paints and brushes.

“Frustration has to come out somewhere,” says team member Lydia Dorje, whose favorite part of the job is playing with the kids, “they are powerless”.    With the help of Children’s Disaster team members they are empowered through art and play to draw and create. Team member Rhonda McDowall encourages conversations with the kids and likes to do art or clay activities with them. “Clay takes every soul to a calm space,” she says, “even grown-ups.”  

Red Cross shelter workers are amazed to see the children actively engaged in play, smiling and laughing.   Many have forged new friendships with one another and look forward to the daily time they have with Children’s Disaster Services.

“One of our kids comes running to our center as soon as we arrive and is the last to leave every day. Since his family lost their home to the lava, they have been living in the shelter with just a few toys for him to play with and no other playmates.”  Candy says, “He lights up in our center as he ‘cooks with Play doh’ making us cupcakes and treats. He enjoys playing with us and the other children, loves imaginary play with helicopters and emergency response toy cars and rescuing people from one spot to another.”  

“We have five 12 year olds who come in daily to play with Play doh and ask to play Candyland. There aren't many times you see kids of that age engage, play games and have the chance to be kids! Our centers are a safe place for children of all ages to be kids, away from their tents and the rain. Our centers are also reassuring for parents and shelter residents as they can see the children playing and painting.  The artwork displayed along the fence has many viewers.”

Children's Disaster Services is invited to serve disaster operations through a partnership with the American Red Cross. Candy says, “As a pediatric nurse I love working with children. Serving with Children's Disaster Services is such a rewarding experience and is the best of two of my passions, serving others and working with children. The respite we give is not only for the families, it is respite for the children to be away from shelter life, stressed family members and electronics.”

Children’s Disaster Services has responded to hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires and now a volcano eruption.  All CDS volunteers go through an intense children’s trauma training program to interact and play with children affected by disasters.

Written by Virginia Hart