Rebuilding Sonoma County: Fire exhibit helps 'resilient' kids cope with loss
Sophia, 4, was having trouble sleeping. She was temperamental and short with her younger brother, Gregory. She refused to sleep alone and would wake up afraid.
Olivia, 7, was having trouble paying attention in school. Her teachers sent home notes about her lack of focus. She sometimes yelled in her sleep.
Like many other children across Northern California, Sophia and Olivia’s lives were upended by the destructive wildfires that burned across the region last October. Both girls lost their homes in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.
“That was our home that was taken from us in the middle of the night,” said Julie Birdsall, Olivia’s mother. “That was our safe place.”
Both families escaped the Tubbs fire with little time to pack their belongings. Stephanie Webb said her daughter, Sophia, saw “many things on fire” as they drove to safety. Within days, Sophia was leading family members in a new game.
“She would re-enact putting out fires and helping people get out of rooms,” said Webb. “She would have Gregory re-enact a fire with us leaving the house.”
It’s the type of trauma-inspired play that is central to the Firefighter Playhouse exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa. The exhibit, which runs through the fall, is stocked with costumes and props like fire hoses and trucks. Children can choose to play a firefighter, homeowner - even the fire itself.
Webb said her daughter was “very excited” to visit the firefighters exhibit, where she took on the role of a first responder and helped lead other children to safety.
Collette Michaud, the museum’s executive director, said role play can be a powerful tool for kids to process trauma.
“I knew instinctively this is the way children process things, by play and by acting things out,” Michaud said. “That’s how they gain power and control and self confidence is through toys and imagination and through play.”
Children who experience a traumatic life event often experience short-term distress, according to the American Psychological Association. Symptoms can range from separation anxiety and lack of interest to nightmares and irritability.
Mary Gillis, a marriage and family therapist who practices in Petaluma, treats trauma and anxiety among other mental health issues. Her writing on the therapeutic basis for role play is featured in the Children's Museum exhibit.
“Part of trauma is having something happen that feels out of control,” said Gillis. “Then there’s the uncertainty about how to regain safety, control and understanding.”
She said children have a need to “externalize” the trauma, using their bodies and tangible objects to work through negative emotions. One of those emotions can be a fear of loss.
“You should try to clean the room of a 7-year-old who lost her home,” Birdsall said of her daughter, Olivia. “She has little things stashed and hidden all over the place. She doesn’t want to throw anything away.”
Olivia’s birthday party, normally held in the park at the center of her neighborhood, was moved to an indoor venue this year. Still, Birdsall said she sees signs of hope in the rebuilding effort, and in her daughter’s behavior.
The Children’s Museum hopes it can help in such cases.
“We want to be a place where families and kids can come and heal through this,” Michaud said. “It will definitely take time.”
Children may gravitate to firetrucks and costumes, but how do older kids and teenagers work through trauma?
Lorez Bailey is executive director of Chop’s Teen Club in Santa Rosa, a nonprofit organization and place for teens to meet, play, create and learn outside of school. She said the key to recovery is giving kids space.
“I think kids are actually really resilient,” said Bailey. “We all talk about kids, how they seem to bounce back from things. For a lot of the kids, part of the trauma seems to be that parents are still going through it.”
She said the teen club’s mission was clear in the first days after the fires: help anyone who came through the doors. Bailey said the club was packed with people who needed to print forms, charge phones, check on friends or get a bite to eat.
With schools closed for weeks as the county assessed fire damage, Chop’s served as a natural meet-up spot. Melissa Stewart, program and events director, said the club was a place for kids to “experience some form of normalcy” at a time when few things were normal.
Months before the North Bay fires, a tropical cyclone slammed Houston with catastrophic flooding, pushing the city of 2.3 million residents to its breaking point. Hurricane Harvey stalled over the city, dumping heavy rain and forcing thousands of residents into a temporary shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Many evacuees were parents with their children. The Children’s Museum of Houston, seeing a need for relief, soon joined an effort to help parents and kids who had left their homes.
Armando Orduña, director of outreach programs for the children’s museum, said families were struggling in “chaotic” conditions as a shelter meant to house 5,000 residents stretched to accommodate thousands more.
“There was nowhere for the kids to go to run, jump, play, sing, or just relax,” Orduña said. “They had the cot, and that was it.”
The Children's Museum opened a “Kids Zone” at the shelter, with games and support staff to look after children. Orduña said the kids were the most resilient people at the shelter, using play to distract themselves from boredom or discomfort.
With free child care, parents at the shelter were able to work through issues with FEMA, find donations or plan their next move. Meanwhile, their kids played with others who had been through similar hardship.
“Every single one of these kids has a story to tell,” Orduña said. “What we did. How we got through it. What our neighbors did. What complete strangers did to help us all get through it. They all have their stories.”