The Heart of CMB: Child Life Disaster Relief


Floods. Tornadoes. Wildfire. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Bombings. Mass shootings. Cincinnati has seen a few of these disasters in my lifetime, but the reality is that they are a very real threat/experience for many in this country (and this world) on an ongoing basis. A disaster is defined as a sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life.

Disaster is life-changing.

As a parent (and adult), I feel tremendous empathy towards those whose lives have been significantly impacted by disaster. I can not imagine losing my home and literally everything that goes with it. The idea of re-building from scratch is overwhelming to even think about, much less experience. Where do you go for resources? How will you feed your family? Where do you get basic necessities, such as diapers and clean water? It’s terrifying to think about, however the harsh reality is that many have had to live this reality, this past year alone.

I want to take a minute now to tell you a story. Imagine that your home town just experienced a natural disaster. Your home is gone, you have no personal comfort items and you are scared. Now imagine that you are 7 years old and not only are you feeling scared and overwhelmed, you are watching your parents also experience fear and uncertainty. And perhaps in their efforts to take care of those basic needs, they aren’t able to just sit and read to you… which would really make you feel so much better. They are dragging you to community centers and crowded rec centers in search of help and that only makes you feel even more scared and uncertain. Maybe you want to talk about what you just lived through, but it makes your Mom cry even more than she already is. Or maybe you don’t want to talk, you just want to feel safe and normal again.

Children are often the poster faces of disasters, but are often not the first to receive attention in the aftermath. This makes sense because as a parent, your job is to provide for those basic survival needs first and foremost. We have to keep our kids healthy and safe! Fortunately, there are some organizations dedicated primarily to the support of those children, directly impacted by disaster. Child Life Disaster Relief (CLDR) is one of those organizations. 

Child Life Disaster Relief was formed by a group of child life specialists (CLS) right here in Cincinnati. Child life specialists are professionals who are trained to support comprehension and coping in children experiencing trauma. Typically, you will see a child life specialist in a medical setting, focused on reducing medically induced or accident based trauma. After realizing that the specialized training of CLS, positioned them well to contribute after disaster-induced trauma, local CCLS and founder of CLDR, Katie Nees, took the initiative to reach out and form a relationship with Children’s Disaster Services.

Since 1980 Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) has been meeting the needs of children by setting up child care centers in shelters and disaster assistance centers across the nation. Specially trained to respond to traumatized children, volunteers provide a calm, safe and reassuring presence in the midst of the chaos created by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires any natural or human caused disaster. 


In 2013, Katie was deployed as a CDS volunteer to Moore, Oklahoma after tornadoes had ripped apart homes and families. The experience reinforced the idea that the skills of child life specialists were well suited for working with children in the aftermath of disaster situations.

Katie and kiddos hard at “work” following the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma. Photo Used with permission of Children’s Disaster Services as a partner of Child Life Disaster Relief

It was following this experience, that Child Life Disaster Relief (CLDR) was born. In just a few short years, CLDR has worked with Children’s Disaster Services to help train hundreds of child life specialists for deployment to disaster sites. In addition, they have worked with CDS on staffing a number of deployments, including most recently sending a child life specialist to the flood site in California.

While no deployment is the same, (just as no disaster is the same) there are some themes you will find. The team will seek to utilize supplies to create a play space for the children they will work with. This is certainly not glamorous and requires a lot of flexibility and creativity to make the most out of the space they are given – which is often the corner of a room or even a hallway. The play materials offered will be open-ended to allow them to cross a variety of developmental levels and uses.

Play space following Louisiana flooding, 2016. Photo Used with permission of Children’s Disaster Services as a partner of Child Life Disaster Relief

You will find a staff who is truly present to meet the children where they are at. For some, this may mean sitting quietly in a corner for a few days. For others it may be building and destroying block towers. Thoughts and emotions may manifest themselves through play, art, words or even simply needing to snuggle with siblings while reading a book. One thing is for sure though… a child life specialist will always seeks to empower the coping skills and resilience in the children they encounter and the volunteers will always seek to help make the space and time meet whatever needs the child and family may have. Even if that need is just the chance to play and be a kid while Mom figures out how to get diapers.

Child Life Disaster Relief is an organization, continually working to expand partnerships with other organizations dedicated to post-disaster support services, with the goal of enhancing the work being done by providing child life expertise.

On a local level, the Cincinnati-based CLDR team has established a team of child life specialists in the Cincinnati area as a part of the Red Cross Mental Health volunteer team. These dedicated professionals will be called for any local incidents (flooding, house fires, shootings, etc.) where there are kids that need help from individuals who specialize in children and trauma. You can read more about one of their local deployments on the CLDR blog, here.  

If you would like to contribute to the work being done by Children’s Disaster Services and/or Child Life Disaster Relief, you can do so HERE and HERE.

Artwork created by children following the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, 2016. Photo Used with permission of Children’s Disaster Services as a partner of Child Life Disaster Relief


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