Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Schoolbox Project: Disaster Relief Unsung Hero

So, there was this wildfire ... The kids and I were displaced for over a week from our new home, which we'd moved into barely a week prior to that.

View from my bedroom balcony, 3am
Schools shut down. No one knew where the fires would flare up next or when they might be stopped. For the first 3 days, the main focus was on evacuations, not containment. While the closed hospitals and schools had and used their email, phone and text systems to communicate with patients and parents, other organizations were silent.

No one answered the phone at our new apartment complex. The Boys and Girls Club never picked up, let alone posted a message or provided a recording. Nothing from the North Bay Regional Center. Roads and highways kept closing. Highway 101, the main thoroughfare, was closed periodically, with some main on/offramps closed for over 10 days. People were still trying to find staff, get a phone signal, locate the proper agency who could okay a reopening.

Some children on the spectrum lost their home and their schools (through fire or temporarily via evacuation). Regardless of the type of loss, these losses hit our kids on the spectrum especially hard. The familiar neighbourhoods and routines that helped keep the overwhelming world in patterns they could deal with were gone. Suddenly.

Many, like us, left in the middle of the night, with flames close behind them. And suddenly, they didn't have a home. The world looked, smelled, sounded, and felt totally different.
View from living room window, 3am.
While parents were faced with still having to work (if their jobs were still there and functioning), monitoring the radio for updates, trying to call insurance, or filling out assistance paperwork, our kids on the spectrum were afloat in uncertainty, stress, and trying to hold it together.

Sunrise two days later, 10 miles north of our apartment: rush hour.
For most of a week, we were thankfully able to stay with local family members. We had time to pack some clothing, our cats, and other items meaningful to us on our way to safety. After the first day, I went to work. It had power, gas, water, phones, and the internet -- a combination missing from most of our area for almost 5 days. It also allowed me a daily pilgrimage to the police lines to visually reassure myself that the apartment still appeared to be fine.

My daughter tended a house full of cats, read, and helped out a lot. She had friends to talk with. James ... had his Kindle. He was with people who loved him in a familiar place, but it wasn't HIS place. He and I slept on sofas and he had to deal with living with a dog and eating different foods. He did get to watch a little more TV than usual but he was off his orbit.

After several days of being polite and trying to keep it together, James started verbal stims, spitting (in garbage cans, but still), and taking random things apart. I started taking him on drives to find a phone signal and let him use my phone for internet access. We spent part of a weekend afternoon bagging carrots for the local Food Bank. Anything to give my family and James a break from each other after my being at work.

Then I heard about the Schoolbox Project. A temporary setup was opening close to my work: the Skylane Project. I signed James up. He went there for a few days, until his school and Boys and Girls Club opened back up. It was wonderful. The staff were kind and patient. I could tell they loved working with kids and wanted to give them a safe place to be.

I could check on him during the day on break and pick him up after work and we'd head "home" together. James liked getting outside and being with littler kids (he was pretty much the oldest kid that I saw there). He helped them put things away. He tried sneaking out (testing) and the staff and some hockey team players took the time to talk with him about staying with the program and then engaged him. He spent time in a Quiet Tent. He jumped and skipped. They had his adored Nachos Doritos for snacks. He really liked the day that someone brought in a ukulele and let the kids take turns making sounds with it. I asked James what songs they sang and he said: Down By the Bay.

 It was a good break for James. It meant a lot to me, as a parent trying to get us back to normal. We were very lucky that our place was okay and we did get to go back. James' school reopened and all the staff and most of the students returned. We are thankful that we were able to get back to our routines in our spaces.

Looking back now, after about a month, I can see how much the community has been responding to this crisis. It is amazing and gives me hope. There are many people and organizations helping those hit with losses. I salute them all, and not least The Schoolbox Project. They heeded a need in a crisis and tended to it, and our special needs kids and families benefitted. Thank you.

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