Sharman Charles, Tarifa, Todd, Claesgens, Mark A., Carter, David N.
BATON ROUGE - One of many shelters for Hurricane Katrina evacuees is the conference complex in downtown Baton Rouge known as the River Center.
It is a temporary home for a fluctuating population of around 6,000 displaced people, and at least 2,500 of them are children.
Concern for all the evacuees – but particularly the children – prompted 4-H agents and others from the LSU AgCenter and Southern University AgCenter to work on ideas for worthwhile activities that would help displaced families and children pass the time. Their efforts are just one example of the types of activities being conducted across the state.
"The sheer number of displaced people is almost unbelievable, and it seems as if half of them are children," one visitor to the River Center recently remarked.
That’s easy to see to anyone walking through the vast exhibit halls and arena of the River Center, where a constant flow of humanity threads through rows and rows of cots, mattresses and an occasional pup tent.
The sheer number of adults and children also is obvious to someone in the foyer, where restless people head to the exits for change of scenery – or at the entrance where still more restless people file through the metal detector to come back in.
To combat some of the restlessness and to provide physical activity and educational opportunities, LSU AgCenter and Southern University agents from East Baton Rouge designed a five-hour weekly program for children housed at the River Center.
Now they say they realize the program also is benefiting parents, as well.
"We realized that not only was the Saturday program good for the children, but it was a great service to the parents," said Sharman Charles, chair of the LSU AgCenter’s East Baton Rouge Parish office. "It provided kids with activities and parents with a little time to relieve some stress when the children were out of school without much to do."
Another unintended benefit was the satisfaction organizers and volunteers realized from the experience.
"I have to say that this was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had," LSU AgCenter 4-H agent Todd Tarifa said. "To see the look in those children’s eyes and hear their laughter made us all feel like we were truly easing their suffering – at least for a little while."
Charles and Tarifa, along with LSU AgCenter 4-H agent David Carter and Southern faculty members Karen Stevens and Carol Ann Atkins, were the key organizers of the events.
The group pooled their expertise to generate activities for youngsters from ages pre-school to teen – focusing on keeping the exercises fun as well as educational.
To help them conduct the program, they recruited some 70 volunteers from 4-H Junior Leader Clubs, parents of 4-H’ers, Southern University AgCenter’s Youth Educational Support (Y.E.S.) club, Y.E.S. parents, the Delta Service Corps, administrators and others from the two universities and friends and family members. Organizers said that helped them to accommodate 120 to 150 kids at a time.
In the Kids’ Korner, preschoolers enjoyed building blocks, puzzles, painting, kitchen make-believe and tossing a ball. Their session wound down with quiet time when East Baton Rouge agent Dr. Sally Soileau read them stories from the LSU AgCenter’s character-building series known as Character Critters.
For the older kids, the faculty conducted activities emphasizing leadership and team building, science and technology, math, health and nutrition.
In one craft project, older kids became would-be sculptors, learning how to make and work with "glurch," a kind of Silly Putty. In a game, kids formed teams to compete with one another and learned that winning meant cooperating.
In yet another exercise, youngsters learned health, nutrition and hygiene by way of a "tour" of the human body in a plaza-size, walk-through exhibit called the Body Walk – a joint effort of the LSU AgCenter and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana.
Prizes were awarded to give kids a sense of accomplishment and recognition.
"If we can give these kids a higher since of self-esteem and reliance through these activities, we give them tools much greater than an educational lesson," Carter said. "We give them a life lesson,"
Rewards included children’s books, toys, shirts, backpacks and hats. But staff members added a personal touch as well.
"We try to give every child we come in contact with a gift of some sort," Tarifa said. "When you have lost all of your belongings overnight, anything, even a pencil or a hat, means a lot to you."
While providing rewards to the kids, LSU AgCenter and Southern faculty members said they were receiving rewards as well.
"We are going in and providing the kids with simple activities to help them cope for the time being, or perhaps we are giving them a great sense of accomplishment and self-esteem, but I feel that they may be giving us back much more," Carter said of the experience.
Likewise, Stephens said, "The reward of seeing others happy and smiling in the midst of a crisis has made the time spent worthwhile."
Charles reported that administrators from both universities and the American Red Cross, which manages volunteer efforts in the center, were pleased. "It is a wonderful feeling to know that everyone wants to see our programming efforts successful just because it is the right thing to do," Charles said.
Of course, not all the kids embraced the program right away. "Many began shyly," Soileau said about the Kids’ Korner youngsters. But she noted they gradually warmed up to the attractive activity center the staff had set up.
Also, many preschoolers required focused attention and constant hands-on involvement, Soileau said, but added, "Thank goodness for the teen and adult leaders who teamed up to assist with this high-energy age group."
An older child, however, was especially leery and aloof. The more the staff tried to draw him into activities, the more suspicious he became.
"It seemed as if the whole trauma and adrenaline of this devastation made him shell shocked, and he could not get out," Carter said, explaining, "It took more than 45 minutes to get him to smile, then 1 hour to laugh and eventually - from a distance - to play."
As that pattern unfolded, Carter said it made him wonder if this was the first time the youngster had laughed or played since the hurricane 11 days earlier. If so, how many more kids were in his situation – in despair and in need of a good smile, gift or friend?
The LSU AgCenter agent said the 4-H Junior Leaders also wondered if they could really understand and appreciate what the evacuees had been through, even with what they were learning from others through their involvement in the projects.
"As you enter the facility, you understand two certainties. First, we are often selfish, greedy and ungrateful for what we have no matter how big or small, and second, these people are totally dependent on each other and the generosity of others for this temporary space in time," Carter said.
Generosity of their time and involvement was what the staff was offering and appears to have made evacuee life better, according to Stevens’ account of what she had seen and heard.
"We have received positive feedback from parents and children," Stephens said. "The American Red Cross staff has appreciated the support for the children and families."
Charles added that there may be more "bumps in the road," but said those don’t matter.
"The big picture is what we focus on," she said. "Ultimately, knowing that what we are doing is making a difference in the families’ lives is our greatest reward."
Officials say these Saturday programs will continue as long as needed for the benefit of the youngsters, the families and the households that have been destroyed – until people are able to reconstruct their lives.
"We are only a part of the great outreach of parish extension offices throughout the state," Charles said. "Everyone is doing their part to assist other residents in their own areas in their own ways."
Sharman Charles at (225) 389-3056 or email@example.com
Todd Tarifa at (225) 389-3056 or firstname.lastname@example.org
David Carter at (225) 389-3056 or email@example.com
Mark Claesgens at (225) 578-2939 or firstname.lastname@example.org