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The stench of a burnt building polluted the air. Children huddled around the damage, confused, even though the fire was forty-eight hours behind them. What had been a recently remodeled apartment project just six short years earlier had been reduced to rubble – a red brick building, now blackened, was burned from the inside out. What had been home to these children was now a taped-off toxic and poisoned zone, enclosed by yellow caution tape. Residents anxious to find their lost possessions picked through the remnants. Trash lay scattered next to the children’s feet, alongside charred wood and blistered brick. The reality of this misfortune settled in.
Wood Valley Apartments was a familiar place. Just three months earlier, I had volunteered in an effort called Project Backyard to play with the same kids and talk to their families. We donated picnic tables and clothes to them as well. This time, Wood Valley was not the recipient of a gift, but the victim of a tragedy. And there was another fire that had not yet been extinguished – my need to check in on the children I had met and played with just a short while ago was immense. After I pulled up to the building a few days following the blaze, I wondered what I could possibly do to help. I saw the children scattered across the project and remembered their cheerful laughter when my friends and I had played with them. I recalled serving warm hot dogs fresh off the grill to hungry adults and thought of the amiable giggles of playful youngsters racing to find hide-and-go-seek seclusions. Is this what I could do?
The power of play was the answer. I spotted a lonely boy on the playground; he appeared to be around six years old. He was sitting atop a slide, accompanied only by his blue bag of Doritos. His Batman shirt was our connection; we chatted about superheroes, which forced a grin upon his previously distraught face. Other children crept closer to investigate his laughter.
Soon, they raced in. Some came in quickly on electric scooters and bikes; those on foot were the last to arrive to this impromptu block party. There was sufficient participation for a game of hide-and-go-seek, their game of choice. The kids raced toward bushes, poles, building corners, and trees, all trying to stifle their giggles. After I had counted to twenty, I spotted a thick tree, sure there was someone behind it. I popped my head around the corner and saw two eyes wide open, two rows of half-child, half-adult teeth, smiling big – but not for long, as the child took off screaming for base. There were playful jeers and jubilant shouts as kids followed his dash to the now significant cardboard box that we called base, just as it had been three months ago. My goal was accomplished; the kids were uplifted, at least for the moment.
At Wood Valley Apartments, it was truly meaningful for me to feel the mood transform in just a couple hours. All of these families had lost their homes and everything inside of them; they faced an uphill struggle to recover, yet their spirits were raised by the presence of an outsider who simply came to spend time with them. Relief in the form of play helped to boost their morale. The victims of the fire, however, were not the only ones who benefited. The kids showed me that even if I could not entirely rebuild their lives, spending time with the children – playing, joking, laughing, tickling, and hiding – taught me that time is better spent with others in need. After all, isn’t that what you would want someone else to do for you?
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