Nonprofit empowers children, families in crises

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 4/28/21

CLAY COUNTY – A local nonprofit has received a $10,000 grant to build “coping backpacks” for children enduring emergencies like hurricanes, police activity, pandemics and floods.

Child Life …

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Nonprofit empowers children, families in crises

Posted

CLAY COUNTY – A local nonprofit has received a $10,000 grant to build “coping backpacks” for children enduring emergencies like hurricanes, police activity, pandemics and floods.

Child Life Disaster Relief is a nonprofit organization focused on Northeast Florida, including Clay County, and it’s been making these coping backpacks for years. That’s because they’ve proven to be highly effective both by behavioral studies and word of mouth. Even more backpacks will be made since the charity received a $10,000 grant.

“We are going to be able to make 150 backpacks with quality items,” Child Life Disaster Relief manager of Northeast Florida Danielle Eaves Hernandez said. “I have everything in an Amazon cart right now and ... these backpacks will have instructions for caregivers inside, therapeutic toys, and more meant to help children cope with whatever emergency situation they’re going through.”

The grant is part of a wider $215,000 initiative of grants for Region 3 of Florida, which includes Clay, and Child Life is one of many organizations receiving grants. Child Life is using their grant to build additional coping backpacks, but other organizations are using grants for respiratory equipment, to fund COVID-19 training for culinary staff and more. At the heart of each grant use though is the same ideal: helping others.

Eaves Hernandez was attending training through the Northeast Florida Healthcare Coalition and there, she met people that understood the psycho social support children needed after enduring natural disasters and other emergencies. Things like shootings, accidents, hurricanes and flooding are the primary focus but there are more beyond that. Eaves Hernandez said this “beautiful network of people that she met” evolved from there and she continued to meet amazing individuals who run local programs like Child Life.“They [regional council] announced they were taking applications for grants and we wrote one for our coping backpacks,” she said. “Last January, right before COVID-19, we responded to a hurricane in Puerto Rico and we brought backpacks filled with toys and books and more…everything we do has intention for the children and these backpacks, each of them, are created with a purpose.”

She said it’s easy to write off “toys” as not necessary during an emergency, but according to Eaves Hernandez, “play is the language of children.” These therapeutic toys are how the organization helps children discuss their feelings, thoughts, concerns and worries when going through something potentially traumatic like a hurricane that’s flooded their home.They might give a child a set of toys to act out what they’ve gone through to get a better picture of what exactly that child has gone through – it’s play for the child, but informational for the adults trying to help. It’s also therapeutic for the child, even if they don’t exactly understand what it means.

There’s also the logistical side of what happens after an emergency. Eaves Hernandez recalled being in North Carolina after a large hurricane. She was in a school gym with 300 residents, including dozens of children running around, going stir crazy.

“They were anxious and doing what kids do and that in turn made parents more anxious and stressed,” she said. “We went to Walmart when it opened with the backpacks [they had already given the children] to fill them up with more toys.”

They had children walk them through their evacuation process with the toys. It became clear to Eaves Hernandez following Puerto Rico and North Carolina that children needed something of their own to process the feeling they have when they’re left with nothing after something like a hurricane. That “something” was the coping backpacks Child Life still makes to this day, the same backpacks now further funded by the $10,000 grant.

“We [Northeast Florida Regional Council] are the funding agency so we run the Northeast Florida Coalition where Child Life got the grant from,” Northeast Florida Regional Council CEO Beth Payne said. “We’re the regional government agency and the health care coalition is one of the many things we do. We loved their [Child Life] fantastic mission of trying to help prepare the whole community for disaster.”

Payne said that’s in line with her organization’s entire mission. One thing they offer every year is their grant cycle and while it’s competitive, all of the grants go to organizations devoted to helping the community.

Payne and Eaves Hernandez’s organization also works toward bettering the behavioral lives of children in many ways.

“We are really encouraging healthy play and emotion for self-preservation,” Eaves Hernandez said. “It’s about asking the direct questions: ‘What are you scared about,” for example. It’s about being honest with children by explaining how something like this COVID-19 pandemic works, when it might end, how much longer they need to wear their masks and so on.”

COVID-19 has been an emergency for children around the world, Eaves Hernandez said, and while it’s not as direct as something like a hurricane or a flood, it’s still an emergency nonetheless.

“It’s become this shift from watching them play actively with one another to more virtual play and watching others play on YouTube and places like that,” she said. “They’re really lacking the social interaction they have directly with one another. They crave going back to school. They crave human touch.” That’s something Child Life tries to help parents with as well, Eaves Hernandez said, pointing out how the organization also works with parents to help them help their child cope during times like these. More information about that can be found at cldisasterrelief.org. There’s even a resource tab that takes you to a specific page about COVID-19 where informational handouts can be found alongside videos of activities that parents can do with children and more.

“It’s been different this past year, obviously, but children are resilient and our job is to allow for outlets to promote that resilience and encourage families...to do so.”

To help Child Life Disaster Relief or for more information, visit http://cldisasterrelief.org.

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