Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Shelter Halloween in Yonkers, N.Y.

During Halloween arts and crafts time at a shelter for those affected by Hurricane Sandy
in Yonkers, N.Y., Red Cross employee Kelly Boyd decorates paper pumpkins with--
clockwise from her right--Aasira, Raffiah, Nazaya, Skylar, Destiney, Gabrielle and Zionia.

At the time of this writing, officials report that power is out for 70 percent of the city of Yonkers, N.Y. Hurricane Sandy came through on Monday night, bringing flooding to streets in the city and apartments by the Hudson River. Several families in one such apartment, including 10 young children, were evacuated from their complex on Tuesday night following an electrical outage.

The families came to a shelter staffed by two local Office of Emergency Management officers and seven Red Cross workers including me and my partner Carrie Smith. Carrie has been volunteering with the Red Cross for eight years and was first deployed to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. I have been with the Red Cross for just over two months, and this is my first disaster relief operation.

Seeing so many young faces enter the shelter on the brink of Halloween, with no hopes for trick-or-treating the next day, Carrie and I, along with the other shelter workers, reached a consensus almost immediately that the kids needed an opportunity to celebrate Halloween.

"The reason why we wanted to do something special for the kids," Carrie said, "is because during a disaster everyone is upset—they're hurt and they're crying. They've lost everything they have. So we need to do something to take their minds off of it, even if it's just for two minutes."

So after a Wednesday morning Target run, a Halloween celebration schedule was set in place: arts and crafts, face painting and a "trick-or-treat parade."

Kelly Boyd from the Northern Nevada Red Cross Chapter and I teamed up to help the kids decorate bright orange paper pumpkins with markers and stickers. Once the pumpkins were fully decorated and hanging on the wall, the two of us moved on to face painting. The children (all girls) requested butterflies, princess crowns and kitten whiskers. They couldn't get enough.

For the grand finale, we gave each girl a Halloween bag, and each adult a bag of candy and a place to stand along a long path. The girls then had a trick-or-treat parade, dancing past the runway of people to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," while proudly displaying their face paint and eagerly holding out their bags for the adults to deposit candy. That part, at least, was not unlike a typical Halloween.

"The event not only lifted the morale of the kids, but it helped the parents as well," Kelly said. "Even people in the shelter without kids, their faces just lit up."

The Mayor of Yonkers, Mike Spano, arrived just after the parade to pass out candy to the children, but the hype was lost on six-year-old Zionia. She was busy looking through her bag as soon as the mayor added more candy.

While she was doing that, I ask, "What was your favorite part of today?" 

"Umm... that you all gave us candy," she says thoughtfully.

I shrug. That's to be expected from a six-year-old.

"Look!" she says to me and points her finger to the wall behind me.

I turn, and she gives me a kiss on the cheek.

That was unexpected.