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At the Border, Therapeutic Play Opens the Door

Posted on Aug 16, 2018

Child Life specialists from Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital spent about a week helping children and families at a respite center at the border in Texas.
Though Child Life specialists Kelly Boyd and Kat Leibbrandt help patients in countless ways, they were looking to make a difference beyond Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Yet they didn’t know what to expect when they boarded a plane to McAllen, Texas, on Aug. 4 to work with children and families detained at the nation’s busiest border crossing.

“We wanted to use our skills to help children in such a difficult situation,” says Leibbrandt. “The days proved emotionally draining but incredibly uplifting.”

When the Red Cross reached out to Kristin Maier, the hospital’s Child Life director, to ask if any members of her team could assist on the first Children’s Disaster Services deployment to McAllen, she knew immediately whom to ask.

Leibbrandt and Boyd had completed special training offered by Children’s Disaster Services (CDS, a program of Brethren Disaster Ministries) and Child Life Disaster Relief, a group of Child Life specialists from around the country who have education and training in using therapeutic play to help children cope in the aftermath of a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.
Now they were about to become the first certified Child Life disaster specialists to provide assistance in McAllen, helping kids and families at a Catholic Charities respite center that provides a brief stopover during a long journey. After families are released from the initial detention center, they spend 24 to 36 hours at the respite center before traveling by bus to join a relative already in the United States. Within a week of reaching their destination, they will have a court appearance regarding asylum.

Every day about 130 people arrived at the center, mostly children and teens. Leibbrandt and Boyd’s mission was to use their general Child Life experience along with therapeutic play to help the children and parents cope with worries about loved ones left behind, their long and sometimes dangerous journey and an uncertain future.

Play, music and sports are universal languages and a mainstay of therapeutic interventions in Child Life, Leibbrandt explains. Play-Doh too.

“It helps us provide some normalcy at a difficult time, and builds rapport that helps kids and families feel comfortable engaging with us,” Boyd says.

“This was a unique opportunity to provide therapeutic interventions, and play opens the door.”

With supplies from St. Petersburg, they created a play space inside the respite center for therapeutic art, card games, Jenga and more. The soccer balls they provided were quickly used for pick-up games that were a great way to break the ice. The other members of the CDS group were early childhood development specialists, so the duo from Johns Hopkins All Children’s focused on interactions with school-age children, teens and even parents.

Leibbrandt speaks some Spanish and had an iPad that can access interpreter services if needed. Google Translate helped out too. The kids and parents wanted to learn English, so throughout the day she organized brief lessons.

“They were very good at listening,” she says, “and willing to teach us Spanish too.”

She and Boyd helped explain the paperwork for travel and created notebooks for families to use on the next phase of the journey: simple maps showing where they’d be traveling, plus useful words, numbers, questions and phrases in English.

While the pair made an impact in a short period of time, both agree that the emotionally draining but inspiring experience influenced them even more.

Boyd will remember a mother with a young daughter in a makeshift wheelchair. They had journeyed from Eastern Europe to Central America and then crossed the border. Self-care (hair, nails, etc.) is a popular activity at the hospital and Boyd thought it would be a nice diversion at the respite center, too. While the mom was pleased with the nail polish Boyd supplied, she insisted on returning the bottle before leaving on her bus ride, pointing to others who could use it.

“They were selfless at a time when they had nothing, and they had the most joy of anyone I worked with.”

Leibbrandt was especially moved by the bravery of older teenage boys acting as “the head of household,” responsible for their mother and even younger siblings. In some cases the father had been killed; in others they’d had to leave siblings behind. She remembers a father and son traveling together—he’d had to leave his wife and other son behind and didn’t expect to see them again for six years.

“It was a gift that Boyd and I were able to bring some joy,” Leibbrandt says. “To briefly relieve the burden of a teen who has taken on such responsibility at a young age, to see him smile and ask for another game. That’s something I’ll miss.”

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