When you’re at a mega-shelter, like the ones currently housing thousands of Harvey evacuees in Houston, a child-friendly space stands out.
Amidst the concrete and cots, you’ll see a bold punch of color. And then you’ll see the kids, many of them having fun for the first time since a disaster upended their lives.
At the cavernous NRG Center in Houston, the international non-government organization Save the Children is hosting one of its largest-ever child-friendly spaces.
It’s cordoned off by orange construction netting and barricades. The flair is really for safety; a clear boundary, along with parent-child wristbands, helps staff keep track of children amidst thousands of strangers.
When kids enter the space, says Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, senior director for U.S. emergencies for Save the Children, they see large colorful mats on the floor, building blocks, books, long tables for arts and crafts, stacks of construction paper, mounds of stickers and glitter, hanging artwork, and hula hoops taped to the wall so kids have somewhere to aim a collection of small beach balls. On Thursday, kids played a game of freeze tag.
“When children come into shelters, they’re always kind of grey, dark, monotone environments,” says De Marrais. “When they see the colors and the enthusiasm and energy of our staff, they know this is the place for me.”
De Marrais has spent the past 12 years at Save the Children setting up child-safety spaces like this one all over the world. The organization creates them in the wake of emergencies like a natural disaster or war, and has operated in Texas for families forced to evacuate because of Hurricane Harvey. At least tens of thousands of children have been displaced by the disaster.
While many shelters have informal, kid-friendly areas and entertainment, Save the Children’s program is designed to give traumatized children structure, safety, and the chance to be kids while their parents shower, fill out paperwork, or just take a breath. In the classroom-like environment, the disaster’s smallest survivors can make connections with other children and engage with adults trained to support their emotional and psychological needs.
Sometimes kids immediately smile, laugh, and play once they enter the space. Others might be slow to relax. Marrais recalls seeing a boy in a San Antonio shelter this week who came to the space and spent his first day there curled up on a mat and wearing a hoodie over his head. On the second day, she says he took the hoodie off and began to play with other kids.
“Sometimes that’s the best we can hope to accomplish,” she says.
More often than not, says De Marrais, disaster relief is designed to respond to the needs of able-bodied adults. That’s why, in San Antonio, De Marrais says the only place to wash a two-week old baby was in a bathroom sink being used by a thousand people everyday.
It’s also why Save the Children shows up at shelters with pop-up cribs, wash basins, and umbrella strollers. Without the cribs, babies might have to sleep in cardboard boxes. And the four-wheeled carriers aren’t necessarily to spare parents from carrying their children everywhere. Instead, they become the safe equivalent of a high-chair—a place to strap in a baby or toddler for a meal.
Providing these essential items, along with toiletries, underwear, and socks, helps create a sense of normalcy for kids who’ve been thrown into chaos. They might spend their days watching weary adults cope with a devastating reality, and listen as people fight, cry, or despair. They often don’t fall asleep until as late as 1 a.m. because of the noise and light.
But when there’s a Save the Children space at a shelter, kids have something to call their own.
“We reassure them,” says De Marrais. “We tell them, ‘You’ll be safe with me. While you’re here, you can be a kid.'”