Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Children come first for some volunteers.

As thousands fled wildfire-threatened homes near Los Angeles, volunteers with the Church of the Brethren program Children's Disaster Services focused on care for some of the most vulnerable survivors.

Rachel Contreras, a volunteer caregiver for Children's Disaster Services, looked out her window towards the west on Sunday morning, Oct. 12, and stared in horror at the wall of black smoke billowing less than 10 miles from her California home.

The Santa Ana winds that had awakened her were now gusting to 70 miles per hour, sending two wildfires--described by Los Angeles County fire inspector Frank Garrido as "blowtorches"--sweeping through the hills and canyons of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, killing two and leaving a 15,000-acre swath of destruction as of Tuesday afternoon.

Contreras hadn't gotten the phone call from her supervisor yet, but she didn't care. She looked out the window again. Television reports indicated her area was out of danger, and though many roads were closed, she could make it to San Fernando High School, one of four shelters opened by the American Red Cross.

Frantically, she ticked items from her list one by one. Play-Doh. Check. Coloring books. Check. Watercolors. Check. Puzzles. Check. For the hundredth time, she was grateful she always kept the blue suitcase packed with her Kit of Comfort. It made it easier to get to disaster scenes quickly.

As she walked into the shelter, she was greeted by a familiar sight. Worried adults stood in a daze, eyes glued to the television, hoping to hear good news. Nearly four dozen children wandered the room restlessly, looking for something to do amidst the sea of cots and sleeping bags.

Some families had been fortunate enough to have time to pack their most cherished possessions, but many had fled with only the clothes on their backs. There hadn't been time to gather toys.

That's why the Church of the Brethren's Children's Disaster Services caregivers--required to attend 27 hours training--come prepared. Volunteers like Contreras, and the other five who joined her at San Fernando, bring toys meant not only to entertain, but also to give children a way to express their feelings about the disaster.

"The children are generally frightened and confused because they're away from their routines," said Judy Bezon, associate director for Children's Disaster Services. "Everything that's familiar is torn from them. Our volunteers are specially trained to be a calming presence for the children so they can play out some of their concerns about the fire."

The Church of the Brethren had six volunteers working at San Fernando, as of Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 14. Other faith-based disaster response organizations spent the afternoon in meetings, waiting for the situation to stabilize so needs assessment teams could begin canvassing the affected areas.

It can be frustrating. Becky Purdom, volunteer program manager of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, said CRWRC had more than 60 area volunteers to call upon and would like to help, but expected finding the necessary financial support would be challenging this year. In 2006, CWRWC rebuilt 16 homes in California following a 2005 wildfire. Earlier this year, they were there again, assessing needs from a 2007 fire. Only time will tell if they're able to assist with this fire.

Other disaster response organizations were still trying to determine where they were most needed. The danger wasn't over yet. The Sesnon fire, in the Porter Ranch area of west San Fernando Valley, continued to race towards the southwest, fueled by Santa Ana winds. The Marek fire in northeastern end San Fernando Valley was 70 percent contained, and most of the area's 1,200 residents had been allowed to return to their homes.

But for some who lived in the 4,824-acre swath of destruction, there was nothing left. Two of Lopez Canyon's poorest communities were hard hit, with 36 trailers at Blue Star Mobile Home Park and Sky Terrace Mobile Lodge completely destroyed. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Los Angeles and Ventura counties earlier in the day, and officials requested a federal disaster declaration from President George Bush, which would allow FEMA to begin assisting homeowners.

--Carmen K. Sisson of Los Angeles wrote this report for Disaster News Network on Oct. 14 (reproduced here with permission from Disaster News Network, (c) 2008 Village Life Company). Gloria Cooper served as the Children's Disaster Services Rapid Response coordinator. Governor Schwarzenegger visited the Children's Disaster Services childcare center at San Fernando High School during his tour of the wildfire response.

Source: 10/22/2008 Newsline

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