by John Surr

[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.”]

Previous stories:
A caring man to the rescue!
Hurricaine in 2005

Men helping children during disasters

I am just back from a 2-week gig doing child care in a Red Cross shelter for people displaced by the June 1 tornado in Springfield, MA. Each disaster is like no other, and this was no exception.

The tornado, a very unusual occurrence in this part of the country, went from west to east, bouncing around through Westfield and West Springfield before replenishing its water supply in the Connecticut River and causing a wide path of complete or partial wreckage for miles through and beyond the industrial city of Springfield. The tornado wrecked several high-rise low-income apartment buildings, as well as many small homes, before heading off to focus on the more expensive houses in the eastern suburbs. The damage seemed very arbitrary, with one house being rubble and its next door neighbor apparently untouched. The Massachusetts National Guard is in town to limit looting.
The American Red Cross set up a shelter in the Mass Mutual Convention Center in the middle of Springfield, about 3 blocks north of the tornado’s path. The shelter’s population, which numbered about 350 on our arrival, dwindled to about 120 by June 22, when we closed up our child care center. The shelter itself closed soon thereafter.
Most of the shelter’s residents were Hispanic, but quite a few were from other backgrounds, including Somali. All seemed to be low-income, as the wealthier tornado victims had other resources to draw upon. At one point the shelter manager estimated that about a quarter of the residents were children.

We were a team of 4 women and me, from Children’s Disaster Services (CDS), a nonsectarian ministry of the Church of the Brethren, Our leader was from Indiana, 2 were from Virginia, a “local” from near Amherst, MA, was with us for a week, and another volunteer from south of Syracuse, NY came to replace her. The Red Cross paid our expenses. We also had some valuable help from Alma, a local artist. To my surprise, everyone on the team had had extensive experience working with and for young children.

On our arrival at the shelter we set up a child care center, based on “kits of comfort” prepared by CDS volunteers, containing sensory and art supplies, as well as toys, proven to be helpful to children recovering from disasters. Save the Children already had supplied the shelter with 6 huge plastic bins full of toys, which we dipped into when appropriate. Very soon after setup we were told to move the child care center, and we had to move it again the next morning again to a location near the shelter’s entrance, where we were very much in public view. The “walls” for our roughly 20′ x 30′ center at first consisted of rows of chairs hooked together, then they were replaced by metal crowd barriers backed up by cots on their sides. Because of this public location we tore down the center each evening and set it up again the next morning. The shelter itself was a huge exhibit hall, which was connected to another of the same size until that half was called into duty for a convention the management had booked previously. So we ended up separated by only a curtain from the dormitory of Red Cross cots. I think that our exposed public location may have had a calming effect on the shelter’s adult residents, when they saw young children playing normally within.

Our first week in the shelter was the most challenging I have faced in disaster recovery, largely because of one family. The mother was a hard-to-reach and seemingly uncaring alleged prostitute, plying her trade inside and outside the shelter. Her 5 children were left to their own devices when not with us, and the two younger boys tended to explode into destructive melt-downs when under our care, especially when they couldn’t escape to roam free as was their custom. Each of these two boys took action to prevent us from pleasing the other, and both scared away other children and families from the center. We coped with all this by trying to provide a safe space for their actions (kicking, hitting, and shouting). We stood close enough to keep ourselves and the other kids safe, and we used reassuring words such as “You are safe, here,” which gave time and space for the meltdowns to occur and the boys to comfort themselves.  At various times a big carton became a house for hammering, we used the bubble wrap for hitting, and a slap the Jack card game got vigorous. I like to think that we may have helped the boys between meltdowns when they could focus on play. Eventually, when not under our supervision, the boys and their siblings were taken away by Child Protective Services, which led to a near-riot at night at the shelter, when the mother threatened that her friends would kill shelter workers. After that we looked over our shoulders more than usual, took off our badges when leaving the shelter, and traveled in a group.  And we really enjoyed playing later with less edgy children, whom we got to know pretty well in the 11 days the center was open.

Our team worked really well together, reinforcing each others’ strengths and filling in for weaknesses. The other shelter staff loved our work, as indicated by the shelter manager who said we made his job easier. The many other Red Cross people thanked us along the way. A local teacher told her Red Cross friend that she could see that children who had been in our center seemed to be thriving in relation to their classmates. And the center grew more popular as time went on, with our last day being one of our busiest, even though two of us were out sick in the afternoon. We left the shelter feeling that we had been helpful, and we continue to wish that our playmates and their families have good lives in their new locations.