July 25, 2006 in Nation/World

Cause for a smile, at last

Anushka Asthana Washington Post
 
File Associated Press photo

A boy stands in a store damaged by Hurricane Katrina’s flooding, Aug. 30, 2005. Children living in interim housing almost a year after the storm will get new recreation opportunities through a partnership between FEMA and the charity Save the Children.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Children who face months or years living in temporary trailer parks after losing their homes to Hurricane Katrina are set to be given the chance to play safely thanks to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the charity Save the Children, who announced the partnership Monday.

Secure, well-lighted playgrounds, game rooms, Ping-Pong tables, board games, drama workshops, art groups and the chance to be a Boy Scout or Girl Scout could soon be offered when FEMA opens 20 of its trailer communities and collaborates with experts to convert them into child-friendly spaces.

The agency’s managers will work with public and private organizations to ensure that problems are addressed. Alongside clean and safe play spaces outside, double-wide trailers will be brought in as community centers where adults can socialize and learn about job opportunities. Save the Children will run sessions to help families cope with the fact that their lives have been turned upside down. The trailers will also serve as places for kids to have fun.

“FEMA is acknowledging the need,” said Mark Shriver, vice president of Save the Children’s U.S. programs. “These families are under incredible stress. Many have lost homes, jobs and family members and are now living in cramped quarters. We found there were few spaces for families to get together and no facilities for kids to play.”

A Save the Children investigation into life inside the trailer communities released Monday revealed a disturbing picture. An assessment of 20 sites in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama has uncovered an array of “physical and social hazards” for children. Many were not attending school and finding it difficult to fit into the new environment and get along with local children.

Residents reported changes in young people’s behavior such as boredom, fighting, crying and depression. Many were vulnerable to crime and physical and sexual abuse. Respondents from nine sites said drug abuse and dealing were prevalent.

The charity hopes to use the venture with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security to put in place some of the report’s recommendations, which include improving links to schools and creating community spaces inside the communities. Save the Children will spend $2 million on the “Safe and Protective Communities Project,” which will start at one of FEMA’s largest trailer parks: the Diamond Group Site in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, with 450 trailers. FEMA officials said DHS will not provide any funds.

Allowing the charity into the communities makes sense, said Gil Jamieson, deputy director for Gulf Coast recovery at FEMA. “It is a terrific way to have some normality return to some of the family and kids,” he said from his office in Baton Rouge, La.

The joint venture is not an acknowledgment of difficulties inside the trailer parks, he said. “I don’t view them as difficulties. I am in the business of providing housing. I see trailer parks as giving folks a roof over their head that they did not have before.” But Jamieson added that anything that can help children play and socialize is welcome.

Save the Children will focus on getting children to play and helping raise their self-esteem. Trained professionals will run “emotional-support sessions to for the children at Plaquemines Parish, which was badly hit by the hurricane.

“What they need is a lot of one-to-one attention, self-esteem building and the chance to regain a sense of normality,” said Barbara Ammirati, deputy team leader for Save the Children’s Katrina response.

She said many are under strain because they moved to unfamiliar surroundings. “This is about trying to ground them. Kids are resilient, but they need support,” Ammirati said.

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