When her family in Mandeville, Louisiana was being evacuated during Hurricane Isaac, eight-year-old Ashley Taylor did what any responsible girl would do: she left hurricane behavior rules for her stuffed animals. They included instructions on going to the bathroom (“Take a buddy”), having fun (“Have fun!) and general behavior while she was gone (“Stay calm. No parties”).
Stories like this can make you smile at the resilience of children in the face of disasters. Red Cross disaster mental health workers work with families who are evacuated during disasters to ensure that children come out of it with their smiles intact.
Anita Laffey, a retired licensed social worker who has worked as a disaster mental health volunteer with the Red Cross since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, says children are a special focus because they often don’t really understand what’s going on.
“Children, particularly under the age of 10, often can’t express what they’re feeling in words,” Anita explains. “They express themselves in their play. So we try to provide them with crayons and markers and toys, and we try to keep them busy. Most of all, we listen. That’s how we can find out how they’re feeling.”
The Red Cross sends disaster mental health workers to shelters, as well as out into communities to actually seek out families affected by the disaster. For example, Anita deployed with a team including a case worker and a health services worker during the wildfires near Oklahoma City in August. In addition to large scale disasters, disaster mental health volunteers also work year-round with local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), who deploy day or night for disasters or any size, from floods to apartment fires.
“A lot of what we do is work with parents and caregivers, letting them know what to look for, like if the children are eating and sleeping normally, and what they are saying about the disaster. We tell them not to let them watch too much television or news about the disaster. It’s also important to keep the routine as normal as possible,” says Anita.
This often isn’t easy if a family has been evacuated to a shelter, but buses are often made available to take kids to school. Parents are coached to make sure kids do their homework and keep everything as normal as possible. Most importantly, parents are asked to be a good role model to their kids during a disaster.
“Let them know, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be angry. We’re going to get through this together, it’s going to be okay,” says Anita. “Possibly the most important thing is just to be present, be available for the child and if you can’t, make sure another adult is, like a grandparent or a neighbor. Establish a sense of safety, because that’s what’s been taken away.
“If the children’s behavior isn’t normalizing after a few weeks, we tell parents to get back in touch with us so we can help or refer them to someone. But most of the time, after the initial shock of being in a disaster, they come out okay. Families are resilient. Children are resilient, especially if parents step up to the plate and show them how to handle a disaster.”
One way you help is to sponsor a Piper the Puppy for $100. This stuffed animal is given to a child during a disaster to comfort them.
“We make sure the child has something in their hand. A Piper the Puppy makes a big difference,” says Anita.
We’re sure Ashley Taylor would be proud.