It’s been almost a week since southeastern Louisiana was inundated by more than 24 inches of torrential rain, causing catastrophic flooding and damaging more than 40,000 homes in the region, displacing thousands of residents. The American Red Cross has called the Louisiana floods the country’s “worst natural disaster” since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, estimating their relief operations will cost in excess of $30 million. The outlook for Louisiana’s recovery is uncertain — but one humanitarian organization is working to make a difference for some of the floods’ youngest victims.
Save the Children, a non-profit organization serving and advocating for children in need in both the United States and worldwide, has deployed its first Child-Friendly Space: A unique space designed and created specifically for children’s emotional and development needs in the wake of a disaster. I spoke with Sarita Fritzler, Save the Children’s Director of Emergency Response in Louisiana, to learn more about what Child-Friendly Spaces are and how they’re helping children affected by the Louisiana floods.
When Disaster Strikes
“Thousands of children have been forced from their homes into shelters and many may have no home to return to anytime soon,” said Fritzler. While shelters can provide basic, practical resources for families — such as food, water, clean clothes, diapers, and even formula — Child-Friendly Spaces serve a more specific developmental purpose. Fritzler and her team on the ground in Louisiana have partnered with the Red Cross and other local partners to establish safe, designated spaces where children can play, socialize, and express themselves under the supervision of trained, caring adults.
Child-Friendly Spaces provide structured, supervised activities, everything from playing with toys to reading books, to arts and crafts activities and organizing board games. “[They] offer needed comfort to children who are used to daily routine,” Fritzler said, noting that Child-Friendly Spaces give children “a sense of normalcy and community when their lives are disrupted by disaster.” These spaces not only allow kids to have fun and just be kids — they also provide a necessary outlet for children to cope and process what they’ve experienced.
The Healing Power of Play
Fritzler explained that many children process “distressing experiences” through creative expression and play: This allows them to make sense of what’s happened and to begin their own coping and healing processes. “After a disaster, it’s not uncommon that children will draw pictures of their houses being flooded,” she said, as an example. The staff and volunteers at Child-Friendly Spaces have undergone background checks and are trained in psychological first aid. They engage with children about how they’re reacting and coping, talking with them about their drawings — everything from how it makes them feel to dispelling fears and reassuring them of their safety.
Helping Parents Cope, Too
But it’s not just about the kids, either: Parents can leave their children with volunteer caregivers and staff at Child-Friendly Spaces, giving them the time they need to begin the long process of disaster recovery, such as registering for emergency assistance. Parents who are still reeling from the loss of their homes, businesses, and belongings can take comfort in knowing that their children are in a safe, protected environment when they are at Child-Friendly Spaces.
Save the Children opened its first Child-Safety Space on Wednesday, at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, located about 20 miles south of Baton Rouge. The organization is hopeful they will be able to open more Child-Friendly Spaces throughout the region in the coming days and weeks ahead. Fritzler encourages anyone who’s interested in helping that they can do so by donating to Save the Children online to their Gulf Coast Floods Children’s Relief Fund and spreading the word to others.
Rebuilding Homes, Rebuilding Their Lives
As the floodwaters recede, it will be a long road for Louisiana families to cleanup their homes and rebuild their lives. While government agencies like FEMA can provide assistance at the federal level, Fritzler and her team will continue their work at the local level to deploy more Child-Friendly Spaces across the affected areas.
“Save the Children has been responding to children’s needs in emergencies around the world for nearly a century,” Fritzler said of the organization. “We know that children are always the most vulnerable when disaster strikes and that children have unique needs. They aren’t just little adults.”
To help Save the Children and support or learn more their relief efforts in Louisiana, you can visit them online at www.SavetheChildren.org.