Disaster relief child care team members operate units that provide a safe and loving place for children to stay as their parents apply for assistance or clean up their home site.
"Sometimes I think we are the best-kept secret in Southern Baptist Disaster Relief," Donna Swarts, of Magee, Miss., SBDR national child care coordinator, reflected as Southern Baptist volunteers engaged in a range of ministry in the aftermath of the April 27 tornadoes that tore through Alabama and neighboring states.
Alabama has two disaster relief child care units, one that is operated by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions and one that is a ministry of Tuscaloosa Baptist Association.
In the tornado aftermath, the SBOM unit was stationed in Rainsville, Ala., where an average of 30 children a day received care from volunteers, said Alabama Woman's Missionary Union President Becky Luther, who serves as the state disaster relief coordinator for child care.
The unit was set up at a Federal Emergency Management Agency service center where people go to complete applications for government aid. Going through this process can take hours, said Luther, a member of East Gadsden Baptist Church in Gadsden.
During their time in the child care unit, the children sing songs, play games, enjoy a meal and do crafts. They also hear of the love of God and Jesus, an important component of the care because "the majority are unchurched," Luther said.
As a way to help the children feel better, they were given a toy, blanket and health kit as they left the Rainsville site, she said, noting the parents of babies were given diapers and wipes.
One important aspect of disaster relief child care is that the volunteers give the children the opportunity to talk about their experience.
"They will talk to us about what happened, and we listen," Luther said.
In fact, the children sometimes sense their parents' distress and will not tell them how they are feeling. On May 3, volunteers were caring for a 7-year-old girl who had not spoken since a tornado ripped through DeKalb County on April 27. One volunteer gave her some paper so that she could draw a picture. When the worker asked her what color crayon she would like to have, the girl replied, "Green."
After that, she began to communicate with the volunteers. Her mother cried when she came to get her and heard her speak, Luther recounted.
That behavior is not uncommon among children who have experienced a disaster, she said. The children have lost their homes, their toys and their security base.
"They just don't understand," Luther said.
The volunteers try to help the children by assuring them that situations happen that people do not understand and possessions can be replaced. Sometimes the children have lost a family member and just need to hear of God's love.
On May 5, five volunteers were in Phil Campbell, another part of Alabama devastated by the April 27 storms. One of the four second-grade teachers at Phil Campbell Elementary School was among the 20-plus people killed in the town. The volunteers were available to help students talk through their feelings and thoughts, Luther said.
The primary reason for disaster relief child care is to provide a safe, loving environment for children who have gone through incredible circumstances and to assist parents in crisis, said Candace McIntosh, executive director of Alabama WMU.
WMU facilitates training and provides volunteers for disaster relief child care, and the child care component of disaster relief receives funding from the Cooperative Program and Alabama Baptists' Kathleen Mallory State Missions Offering for state WMU ministries.
McIntosh described disaster relief child care as a niche ministry that meets a need that often is overlooked.
"This is a very important ministry," McIntosh said. After Hurricane Katrina, she read in an article about how a child is treated in the aftermath of a disaster influences the adult that he or she will become.
For this reason, it is crucial for children who have experienced a disaster to receive the love and care of someone who knows Jesus, officials say. The children -- sometimes the forgotten victims -- get from child care volunteers the attention and security that their parents may be too grieved, busy or distracted to provide at that time, McIntosh said.
Bebe Barnett said the volunteers help create some normalcy in the lives of children who have seen their world torn up.
Barnett, director of Tuscaloosa Baptist Association's child care unit and a member of Northport Baptist Church, worked with Hurricane Katrina evacuees who came to Tuscaloosa in 2005.
She and other volunteers found that the children looked forward to returning to the unit stationed at Skyland Boulevard Baptist Church each day. They just needed someone to love them at that particular time in their lives, Barnett said.
Leigh Pritchett is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist. To view the latest e-edition of the newspaper, visit online.thealabamabaptist.org.
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