Red Cross volunteer and Air Force spouse Erika Ellsworth says that she hopes Afghan children going through trauma will view themselves as dandelions.
“The wind may take them and carry them somewhere new. They are light but strong and I hope they will be nourished and thrive when they land at a new place,” she said, noting that her goal as a volunteer is to give children the tools to be the best dandelions.
Coast Guard spouse and Red Cross volunteer Yuki Hwang says she was motivated by the arrival of the evacuees too. “I knew there were a ton of children, some of them unaccompanied and I wanted to see if I could help,” she said.
Since the Afghan evacuation began in August, nearly 800 Red Cross volunteers worked on military installations around the globe providing evacuees with more than 1.9 million relief items. On Rhine Ordnance Barracks and Ramstein bases, Ellsworth and Hwang rolled up their sleeves and chipped in where needed, handing out comfort kits, towels, diapers and other critical care items.
Ellsworth says that one day an Army general involved in the operation happened to notice she was wearing scrubs, which led to a conversation about her professional background in clinical work with children.
“I told him, ‘yes, I work in hospitals with children who have experienced trauma.’ He looked and me and said, ‘you are exactly what we need at this base at this very moment.’”
Both Ellsworth and Hwang are child life specialists. As clinically certified professionals who work in medical settings, child life specialists often have backgrounds in child development, psychology and counseling. They work to help families and children build resiliency through trauma.
“It is a very narrow field and the fact that there are two of us here in Germany, it is just crazy,” said Hwang. Ellsworth and Hwang had heard of each other but hadn’t yet met. “There are so many aspects of this story that feel like they were just meant to be,” Hwang said.
Ellsworth and Hwang collaborated with Red Cross and base officials to build a program for Afghan children. “Our first day was completely beautiful chaos,” she said with a laugh. Ellsworth and Hwang started with hopscotch games, Duck, Duck Goose and reading to up more than 50 children at a time.
“We knew there was a need. We knew we had the skills, but we wanted to ensure that we were intentional about the trauma-based play and the quality of our interaction,” Ellsworth said.
Hwang says that they connected with mentors in the field including a collaboration with Life is Good Playmakers to strategize about best practices for meaningful play for trauma victims. By leveraging these professional resources and contacts, they developed a robust and highly structured Child Engagement Program for Afghan children.
Hwang says that after such trauma many of the children were easily overstimulated, and to ensure proper engagement, small groups were key. “We decided to be very collaborative about our curriculum and ensure best practices,” Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth and Hwang soon were able to train additional Red Cross volunteers to be a part of the program. “This is why I just love our military spouse community. They are just awesome. We had so many people with professional skills and backgrounds that fit so well — like English as a second language (ESL) teachers, therapists and cross-cultural communications specialists,” Hwang said.
From the middle of September through the middle of October, the Child Enrichment Center provided structured play and therapy to more than 1,000 children on Rhine Ordnance Barracks (ROB). With 20-minute sessions that ran throughout the day, the center became the place to be on base.
Hwang and Ellsworth were particularly moved by the service members who assisted, including one Army sergeant named Mickey, who they deemed the center’s ‘hype guy.’ “Mickey would help organize the children and run up and down high fiving them before their session. Everyone just loved it. He was famous on base among the children,” Hwang said.
They say that the month flew by with so many special moments like this. As the center came to a close, volunteers met the families in tents and formed a singing circle. “This was one of my favorite days,” said Hwang. “Even [Red Cross Vice President] Koby Langley and other officials visiting got on the floor with us and sang with the children.”
Ellsworth says one exercise she’s most proud is when she had the children draw their greatest resources and strengths. “Even though the kids did not speak English, we figured out a way to communicate this concept. We had a series of listening prompts in Dari and one child in each group would eventually get the concept and translate it all. You could almost see the lightbulb go off and the idea would quickly spread among the children.”
They say that what the children most needed during their temporary stay in Germany was time and attention. “They needed a safe space to express themselves and what they were feeling. Creating moments was our most important job,” Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth says that the principles of the Red Cross closely align with her professional work and her life philosophy. “We wouldn't have been able to do this without the Red Cross. We just had all the right people around us to say, yes, and we built this beautiful thing.”
As Hwang and Ellsworth watched Afghan families board buses for the airport to start their next chapter in the United States, the mood was celebratory. “We were all high fiving,” said Hwang. “It was such a special moment with these families we’d come to know over the past month.”
“As these kids pick up and start a new, I hope they take away these special memories of our time together,” Ellsworth said. “I hope it is a bright spot during a challenging chapter — a moment they can think about as they bloom in the next.”