|© UNICEF New York/2005|
|UNICEF Press Officer Allison Hickling|
Allison Hickling, a UNICEF Press Officer, has volunteered to help with the Katrina relief effort. This is her personal account.
By Allison Hickling
HOUSTON, 6 September 2005 – The sun is setting outside the Reliant Center, one of three shelters in the Reliant Astrodome Complex in Houston, bringing another long day for weary evacuees closer to an end.
Inside, I am eating dinner with four children. An 8-year-old across from me is wearing a glittering tiara – she has crowned herself princess for a day. Pausing after a gulp of food, her 10-year-old cousin and self-appointed leader of the group, wonders out loud, “How do we know that Katrina won’t come back again?”
Yesterday, another curious child asked his grandmother, “Did God do this?”
In the wake of a tragedy with questions and untold consequences that even adults struggle to contemplate, children too are trying to understand the dramatic turn of events that has landed them in this unfamiliar territory.
Childhood as they know it may be disrupted, and their futures uncertain, but here in this space they cling to simple joys, to the pure fun of being children.
It is the welcome noise of young children at play that first greets you in this enormous building, roughly the length of five football fields. The children run through aisles and walkways. A few whiz by on rollerblades or skateboards. They play ball games, skip rope, and tinker with an array of donated toys. Today, I chuckled at the ingenuity of a basketball hoop made from a wastebasket cut in half.
Groups sit on the floor colouring or doing artwork, others figure out puzzles, play board games, read books. In the daycare, volunteers cradle infants and keep older children busy with structured play. In each of the three shelters, there are recreation areas for children only. Outside the shelters, children are granted free admission to the Houston Zoo, the Children’s Museum of Houston and other attractions.
I am relieved day after day to see very few children in the area reserved for lost or missing children and for those separated from their parents. Of the relatively small number of children who have registered there, many have been successfully reunited with their families, thanks largely to the efforts of Houston’s Child Protective Services.
Back to school
UNICEF knows from experience that getting children back into school is a critical step in the aftermath of such a crisis. Thousands of children are already enrolled in local schools and some reportedly began classes today. As a matter of urgency, more children must start school in the days and weeks to come.
What children are experiencing here is not typical of emergencies the world over. It is a testament to the many support services provided here that the spirit of childhood is being kept intact. Children caught in the sudden grip of this crisis and now affected by its complex aftermath have certainly been through traumatic experiences. The long-term psychological impact is unknown.
Yet, for now, there is often laughter where you might expect to find tears. And if you’re really lucky, maybe even a bright-eyed girl who still considers herself a princess.
UNICEF's Allison Hickling is working as a volunteer in Texas. Read her account of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.