By Jennifer McGrath, special contributor to redcross.org
Two-year-old Ma’kayla Nwankwo has been at the American Red Cross shelter at the George R Brown Convention Center in Houston since she and her family were driven from their home by Hurricane Harvey. In the shelter, she kept to herself and has been holding back on talking to others.
But when she sat down with two Red Cross shelter workers in the Kids Zone, she began coming out of her shell and before long she was smiling and having a good time for the first time in a long time.
“I’m really happy to see her play,” said her mother, Nikki Nwankwo, who smiled as she watched her little girl be happy once again.
Nikki and the rest of her family are at the shelter because there’s no other place for them to go right now. Their home was flooded, and, even though the water has gone down, the stench of floodwater and mold remain. They remain hopeful that someday soon they can return to their home.
For Ma’kayla and scores of other children at the shelter, the Kids Zone is what they need in their time of need. It’s a safe area outside the dormitory that has activities, books, toys, and plenty of room to move and burn off steam.
As part of the disaster response, the Red Cross partnered with the YMCA of Greater Houston and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department to create this center of activity for children in the shelter. It is fully staffed with people who are specially trained. They have all been background checked to work with the up 100 children who can fill the Kids Zone.
“The main focus is to get kids moving and active, playing with other kids,” explained Marie Arcos, executive director of community development for the YMCA of Greater Houston.
Having fun and playing helps the children deal with the stress of being displaced from their home and placed in a strange environment with lots of strange and unfamiliar surroundings.
In addition to the large play area, there is a long table set up with computers filled with games provided by CompUDopt, a local non-profit group that provides technology access and education to underserved youth.
Parents can drop their children off while they spend time with the many agencies at the center assisting shelter residents. There is even a separate area that is smaller, quieter and darker for more sensitive children with sensory issues. Counselors with mental health training are available for families.