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.”