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Friday, October 4, 2013

Using Play Time to Help Children Cope with Trauma of Disaster

Story by DICK MCGEE
Photos by DICK MCGEE and JORDAN SCOTT

Disaster relief services are not just for grown-ups.  So, the American Red Cross is meeting the big challenge of providing services to children.

 From toddlers to teens, children are among the several thousand persons who are still receiving assistance from the Red Cross, FEMA and other community agencies nearly three weeks after the Colorado floods.   Children suffer the loss of their safety and their possessions just like their parents do. Plus, they cannot verbalize their inner-most thoughts and feelings the way adults do.

 Aware of this critical situation, the Red Cross has contracted with the Church of the Brethren Children’s Disaster Services, headquartered in New Windsor, Md., to support the needs of youngsters in disaster areas. A team of six trained and certified Children’s Disaster Service workers was deployed to set up a therapeutic play room at the Disaster Assistance Center (DAC) in the Twin Peaks Mall in Longmont.

 “We will stay here as long as we are needed,” promises Patty Henry, the team leader. “As long as there is one child who benefits from spending time in our play room, there is work for us to do.”
Their concept of therapeutic child play has some unique features. For example, the children aren’t allowed to bring their own toys to the play room. Instead, these workers depend totally on creative play that allows the kids to put their own spin on the disaster. Coloring books aren’t allowed because only original, creative drawings enable children to put themselves and their unique emotions on paper.

Henry, who has 23 years as a teacher in early childhood education, explains one example of what a child encounters in the playroom. A favorite toy is a puzzle in which large wooden pieces can be inserted on a backboard to recreate a familiar scene. The puzzle is introduced to a child as a pile of pieces, broken and strewn around the table like the chaotic debris they witnessed at home as the waters receded. As they work with the pieces, fitting them back together properly to reconstruct what was damaged, children gain some control over their environment.

“After rebuilding that puzzle two or three times, a child becomes visibly more relaxed and cheerful,” Henry observes. 

The goal is to enable these children to cleanse their young psyches of memories and fears that could become emotional toxins in their lives.

“Children come and play with us while their parents are making the rounds to apply for the services they need here at the DAC. When you help a child, you help the entire family. Mothers are able to leave their children in our care, while they handle things that require their full attention. We are a respite service as well as a play therapy service,” Henry explains.

The American Red Cross strives to assist all disaster victims, and the partnership with Children’s Disaster Services enables the Red Cross to address the emotional needs of the most innocent of a disaster’s victims.

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