“Celebrating the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary in 2008″
(Oct. 1, 2008) — The following is excerpted from a report by John Surr, a volunteer with Children’s Disaster Services who cared for children in a “mega shelter” in Louisiana during Hurricane Gustav. (Go to www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2008/09/02/romans.la.shelter.kids.cnn for a video report on the situation of children in the shelter.)
“Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks. I came home at noon on Friday, Aug. 29, to find a message that I should call about a possible assignment as a volunteer for Children’s Disaster Services to provide child care for victims of Hurricane Gustav in Louisiana. Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) is a non-sectarian ministry of the Church of the Brethren that works closely with the American Red Cross and FEMA to provide therapeutic childcare in their Disaster Service Centers and, more recently, in their shelters.
“This was CDS’ second shelter childcare experience, but it was like none other. Eight of us were to provide care for the children among thousands of victims staying in a newly-constructed, $26 million mega-shelter. It was longer and wider than three football fields, situated among the cotton fields on the agricultural campus of Louisiana State University south of Alexandria.
“Monday, Sept. 1, the day of the hurricane dawned. I was introduced to our childcare center and the other volunteers who staffed it. The childcare center was in the corner of a huge room that was filling rapidly with ambulance crews from all over the country who were being staged at the mega-shelter until called out to rescue people affected by Hurricane Gustav. The childcare center had “walls” of big cardboard cartons that had held Red Cross cots, a hard concrete floor, and a few tables and chairs.
“Save the Children had provided most of the toys and supplies for the childcare center, where up to 25 children could play with chalk, tempera paints, beads and other crafts, Duplo blocks, construction toys, cars and trucks, plastic animals, play dough, books, puppets, and dolls. We also had balls, Frisbees, and jump ropes for older children, but these activities turned out to be a bit too boundless and chaotic to manage successfully indoors. We had two or three sessions for the children each day.
“Hurricane Gustav, my first and I hope last hurricane, showed up in force Monday afternoon, and the doors of the shelter were shut. On our breaks we could watch the 80 mile-per-hour wind and rain lash the trees. That night, the shelter held over 3,000 clients, about 400 volunteers, and a large number of hospital and nursing home patients from elsewhere in Louisiana. Busloads of people from New Orleans and other coastal parishes had been joined by large numbers who came from lowlands near and far. Gustav must have enjoyed our company, because he sat on top of us with wind and 9.5 inches of rain until Wednesday afternoon. The families were stuck in the shelter until buses came for them on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
“In all, we helped about 360 children, most of them between the ages of 3 and 8. As the word got out among the clients about our childcare center, we began to see many of the same faces each day, despite the preference we gave for children who had not yet received our care. One of the regulars was an eight-year-old girl named Kayla, who made a bead bracelet then gave it to me. Kayla and her friends called our center “the old folks’ place,” because most of us volunteers were what you might call “experienced.”
“Also memorable were Jerry Lynn and her two brothers, whose father had died two weeks before the storm. James, a toddler, calmed down from acute and vocal separation anxiety while I held him and sang to him. Six-year-old Deon stopped acting out, wrecking other children’s work, and throwing blocks after I started talking with him sympathetically about his anger and his grief. Trevor was able to paint a scene of mostly mud, rain, and advancing flood to show his worries and how he dealt with them.
“Toward the end of the week the Red Cross shelter manager told our group leader that we had made the difference between survival and success for the shelter, because the children would come back to the cots with smiles on their faces that gave the parents a hope of return to normalcy.
“On returning home I got an appeal for 10 new teams of volunteers to provide childcare to evacuees of Hurricane Ike in Texas, but I think I’ll let others answer that call. I weathered Gustav, and that seems enough for now.”
–John Surr is a volunteer with Children’s Disaster Services. He recommends www.brethren.org/genbd/BDM/CDSindex.html for readers who want more information, “if this kind of volunteer work appeals to you (and you’re not already doing it),” he noted at the end of his report.
The Church of the Brethren Newsline is produced by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of news services for the Church of the Brethren General Board. Newsline stories may be reprinted if Newsline is cited as the source. To receive Newsline by e-mail go to http://listserver.emountain.net/mailman/listinfo/newsline. Submit news to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Church of the Brethren news and features, subscribe to “Messenger” magazine; call 800-323-8039 ext. 247.