by John Suur

[MenTeach: John Suur has been volunteering to offer child care services after diasters for many years. He is an attorney who retired from working at the World Bank and has worked with Toddlers for many years in his “retirement.”]

This article is a narrative of how things went for me during my recent deployment to the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and the Red Cross Center in Pensacola. A second report will comment on matters only of concern to Disaster Child Care.

I arrived in Pensacola on Monday, September 11, and drove on to Fort Walton Beach with June Slick, our Project Manager, on Tuesday, September 12. Already before arrival I was informed that our Fort Walton team was to be reduced from 4 to 3. I was asked to lead the reduced team, consisting of Jan and Dick Millhouse and me. Pat Bub, who was to have been our leader, was transferred to permit the Pensacola team to be split into two, so that the Red Cross Center could be covered as well as the Pensacola FEMA One-Stop Center.

Our Fort Walton FEMA Center, Disaster Recovery Center No. 8, was in a former CVS drug store, with the linoleum floor and the shelves removed, and office room dividers, portable tables and chairs moved in. Our child care center was in the center of this arrangement, which was unusual for DCC, as the children were exposed to the public along two sides of the center. In this case it worked well for the children, because so many of the parents and children were anxious about being separated from each other. Many if not most of the children had been continuously with their parents since Katrina, ten days or more previously. So this was the first time the children could really play in a neutral but safe setting. Looking over the tables they could see their parents, and their parents could see them, with mutual reassurance. Only a few of the children in our care tried to leave the center to visit their parents.

Another feature of our location was that the main air conditioning vent for the large room was in the ceiling directly over the back of the DCC center, so that there was a chilly wind blowing there in the back most of the time. We played almost exclusively in the other parts of the DCC center, and Jan wore a sweater to compensate. Many of the children, however, came to us barefoot and with skimpy summer clothes on, it being in the 90’s outside. The floor was incredibly dirty, and the kids’ bare feet showed it. We had a thin rug, fortunately.

The children’s part of the DRC had been dedicated to that use since well before DCC appeared on the scene, and there was a large if spotty number of toys and games there for the children when the DCC team first arrived. We left these toys, plus some of ours, for the children when we departed. Project Hope, a FEMA contractor working on social service issues, had taken the establishment of a place for children to play as one of their first tasks, and they were very helpful to us during our stay. Their supervisor arranged with them to help us out if they had a person to spare and we had more children who wanted to be with us than the 3 of us felt that we could handle. That situation occurred only a few times during our stay. One of the FEMA receptionists also was very helpful to us, as was Anthony, our Florida State host. The church across the street supplied free ham & cheese or PBJ sandwiches for everyone in the building most of the days we were there, supplemented through FEMA by chips, cookies, and the ever present bottled water, as well as occasional pizza.

On weekdays we served from 16 to 23 children a day, with most coming after 9:30 and leaving by 4. We worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., though we would leave an hour early if we had no children and the DRC was emptying out. The children’s time with us ranged from 10 minutes to 4 hours, with an average of about 1-2 hours. Their ages ranged from 6 months to 13 years, with one adult with Mongolism added. In addition, we helped to set up the diaper changing table (with free diapers and wipes) back by the bathroom, and we would offer donated coloring books and crayons to the children who chose to stay with their parents while there. We recruited actively but not imposingly, emphasizing that free child care was available but not mandatory. Saturdays attendance was much lighter, and we did not work on Sundays, when very few children came to the DRC. Many of the families came to our DRC because the lines in the centers in Alabama and Mississippi were so long, or because they had evacuated to towns in the local area, so we cared for more children from Louisiana and Mississippi than from Alabama and Florida. All economic classes and ethnicities were represented. One mother told us in detail about her husband’s multi-million dollar losses in New Orleans, while others were anxious to find new entry-level jobs in safer locations. Many families had lost everything but the clothes on their backs and a few other possessions. Others just needed a roof repaired. Ours was the soft edge of the disaster: None of our children had dead, missing or injured members of their family.

I was very impressed with the generally positive outlook that the families coming to us expressed, even when their whole lives had been disrupted. Most of the locals wanted to help them and the workers serving them, and the County had assembled a large book of where evacuees could go to meet specific needs. Even so, the victims often expressed considerable frustration about the public agency and insurance company red tape involved in getting back on their feet. The atmosphere among the workers in the Fort Walton Beach FEMA Center seemed very positive, much in contrast with what we found later at the Pensacola Red Cross Center. One FEMA worker told us that this was the honeymoon period, after the victims had been given their debit cards but had not yet received their benefit denial letters.

Practically all of the children behaved very well, especially considering what they had been through. Many were on their best behavior, probably induced by their families’ anxiety about the future. Very easily most merged easily into the play opportunities in the DCC Center, and into sharing with each other. The rice bin, the play dough, the tempra paints, the toy car ramp and the toddler music and movement apparatus (the latter two both supplied by local donors) were the most popular activities. Bowling with rice-based former water bottles also was popular, but it could get noisy. The older ones liked Uno, but we lacked a Jenga to play with. Puzzles got some attention, though we were short on puzzles suitable for preschoolers. As in other centers, the stuffed animals and the books got very little interest, with some notable exceptions. We made up for some shortages in toys and supplies with local purchases.

We had mostly one-on-one or small group interactions with the children. Jan was very good at calming young babies and tired toddlers. Often siblings would play with, or care for, one another; however, a few of them carried their rivalries into their play in a disruptive way, and had to be reminded that they and others needed for the center to be a safe place where nobody got their feelings or their bodies hurt. Some of the older boys brought their Game Boys, and one even shared his. The art work was varied. We ran out of black tempra paint early, from all of the storm depictions. But there also were a fair number of rainbows, flowers, and trees/sun, typical of the age of the artist. The younger children particularly liked the sense of the color coming off the brush onto the paper, however it came. Only one or two of the children were obviously disturbed and hostile toward us and others. I particularly enjoyed watching young imaginations getting back to work, making up stories to fit the toys they were playing with. The FEMA people created a visual barrier of shelf paper between their receptionists and the rest of the center, which our children were invited to decorate. And decorate it they did, with many flourishes and signs of individuality. In addition, the leftover art was put on the FEMA Center’s wall next to the entry door, and it extended about 30 feet along the wall when we left.

The Red Cross Center in Pensacola was very different, handling over 1,000 people a day in a very regimented context. Our center, where I worked on September 23 and 24, was completely divided off from the other activities by room dividers and curtains, and we were instructed to avoid recruiting, letting the Red Cross nurses bring families to us (which they did, in clumps). Families waited there much longer, for what seemed like less significant results than at the FEMA center. The victims had to use port-a-potties, and the staff had access to a bathroom. I got into trouble with a gate keeper when I escorted one of our 3 year old boys and his dad to the staff bathroom when the boy had an urgent call of nature, because the victims “mess up the bathrooms”.

Some of the memorable events involved children like 15-month old Isabella, who had me wrapped around her little finger as she led me around the almost empty DRC at the end of the day; “Missy”, a 12 year old autistic child, who had the 3 of us dancing and laughing with her to the tinny music of the toddler’s play stand early one morning; several young ones who actually enjoyed my animal sound imitations as we read a book about animal sounds together; an older boy from Algiers, LA, across from New Orleans, who had lost everything but his dad and calmly played Uno with us; and a 3 year old boy in the Red Cross Center who got a free toy or animal crackers from Red Cross workers both times I had to take him to his mother in the auditorium. His anxious eyes eventually calmed down.

Quite a few of the children didn’t want to leave when the parents came back to pick them up. It was clear to us that our play opportunity had helped them to resume a sense of normalcy. Thanks were abundant from both parents and FEMA staff, (as well as hugs from the children), and that was nice. We listened sympathetically to the stories of both children and parents, and that also helped. Many of the stories were told matter-of-factly, but were harrowing, such as staying inside a hall while the house is falling apart of the water was rising. Most of the children we saw, however, had evacuated before the storm did its worst.

As you know, our accommodations ranged from extreme luxury while assigned to Fort Walton Beach, to very basic when in Pensacola. The luxury included a Sunday morning ride at 70 mph on our host’s speedboat, and king-sized beds in separate rooms for the Millhouses and me. The basic services at the First Presbyterian Church in Pensacola involved a large room, divided by a curtain, for all of us volunteers, with squeaky, saggy cots and foam mattresses. I had thought that I wouldn’t be staying there, so I didn’t bring sheets, blanket, pillow or towel. I managed, including using paper towels after my showers until I discovered that the church did indeed have towels for its guests. I guess that’s the flexibility that we’re trained for. The Angel Flights to and from Pensacola on corporate planes were luxurious when they happened, and it was fun to just walk out to the plane with your luggage, with no ticket counter or Homeland Security. The uncertain and much-delayed timing of the flights left much to be desired.

All in all, it was a very fulfilling experience. I felt I was doing what I’m supposed to be doing, even though it interrupted a busy life at home. Thank you for providing this opportunity, and I look forward to a similar opportunity to serve again. As we Quakers say, I’m continuing to hold you, the volunteers, and the children we serve in the Light.