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Madison Board of Education Chair Katie Stein recently returned from a week-long deployment to Florida to put her expertise to work assisting children displaced by Hurricane Michael. (Photo by Margaret McNellis/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Katie Stein, known locally for her work on the Madison Board of Education and as a child life specialist at Yale, recently returned from volunteering to help displaced children in the wake of destruction caused by Hurricane Michael, which struck Florida in early October.
The main goal of working with children as part of disaster relief is to help them build up “resilience through play; that’s how kids learn,” Katie says. “This was my first deployment since I trained two years ago.”
The impacts of devastating illness and hospitalization can have an acute and significant effect on children’s lives. At Yale New haven Children’s Hospital, child life specialists facilitate the emotional and social growth of children during the crisis of illness.
“The goal,” Katie says, “is to bring as much normalcy to a not-normal situation.”
Child life specialists who are deployed seek to “provide developmentally appropriate interventions including therapeutic play, preparation for procedures, and education to reduce fear, anxiety, and pain,” Katie adds.
In Florida, the shelter Katie served in housed 175 residents, helped by nine volunteers. Right about the time when Katie’s deployment was ending, there were plans to merge with another shelter, bringing the population to 900 residents. The volunteers are a mix of those trained by the American Red Cross and Children’s Disaster Services, a nationwide ministry of the Church of the Brethren.
Established in 1980, Children’s Disaster Services has trained 3,100 volunteers and helped care for 88,000 children in response to more than 230 man-made and natural disasters.
“We work on expressive activities to help children cope,” Katie says. “We also care for children so their parents can meet with FEMA, for example.”
Establishing normalcy is difficult, especially in a disaster relief shelter.
“Kids can’t be noisy in the shelter; they can’t be running in the shelter. I was the messy art teacher, and it was neat to see 10-year-old kids engaging in pretend and expressive play,” Katie says.
Without reliable cellular service, the older kids couldn’t rely on their phones for entertainment.
“They loved preschool songs because they created a safe place to feel silly,” Katie adds.
In addition to art and singing, activities included building houses out of cardboard boxes and building sand pits out of rice and beans.
“When mommy is crying and daddy’s lost his job, it’s a safe place for kids to express themselves,” Katie says. “Giving them an outlet to express and feel is part of the coping and healing process.”
Safe spaces make for opportunities to develop supportive relationships.
“It was neat to see kids in the shelter become a family. A group of older kids cheated in a game of Candy Land so that a younger kid could win,” Katie says.
Nuclear family bonds were tested, too. In some cases, families had to shower in groups to bathe an infant family member, as there aren’t bathtubs at the shelter. The showers available are better than no showers at all, but it can be difficult for families, she says.
“Getting medicine after a disaster is another difficulty,” Katie adds.
Even with those hardships, Katie is impressed with the American Red Cross and Children’s Disaster Services.
“I so believe in what they do,” she says.
That belief extends beyond Katie alone.
“For me, as hard as it was to leave my own kids and miss my now-14-year-old’s birthday, he said, ‘I’m glad you were able to help other kids be safe and happy.’”
Katie’s deployment required her to leave her family—her husband and four sons—for a week. American Red Cross volunteers typically deploy for two weeks, and child life specialists deploy for one week; the former is usually composed of retired persons whereas the latter are often not.
Despite uncomfortable cots, unappealing food, and the showers, “there are a lot of services for volunteers, too,” Katie says. “I felt safe. Kudos to American Red Cross. The training is superb.”
Katie also said she would like to be deployed again, though of course she also hopes there aren’t disasters that require her volunteer services.
“I can probably only do one deployment per year,” she says, adding she’d do more if she could.
Back in the northeast, Katie turns her volunteering spirit to the Board of Education.
“I love Madison. My background is in education and child development—the board was a natural fit,” Katie says. “I owe it to the district to volunteer to help.”
Katie started attending Board of Education meetings after Sandy Hook in 2012. Soon after attending, she was asked to run for a place on the board.
“The rest is history,” Katie says.
Katie’s 25-year anniversary at Yale will be in September 2019.
“I’ve worked in almost every department, and that’s actually what drew me to disaster relief,” she says.
Being a child life specialist isn’t easy.
“I’m grateful that I’m still passionate about what I do. I’m one of the dinos of the field,” Katie says, “Being a mother helps.”
From her career to her work as a volunteer, Katie is driven by her passion for child health and care as a nurse, as a child life specialist, as a mother, and as a member of Madison’s community.
“When you go out there, you realize how lucky we really are in Madison. The community feel is really nice.”
To support Children’s Disaster Services, mail donations to Brethren Disaster Ministries Children’s Services, P.O. Box 188, New Windsor, M.D. 21776. For more information, visit www.brethren.org/cds.
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