By P.J. Heller
EVANSVILLE, Ind. (Disaster News Network) - At first glance in a disaster area, it may seem like an incongruous sight: A large bus painted bright yellow and black with the smiling face of a young boy on the side giving a two thumbs up sign.
"CJ's Bus," announces large lettering on the side of the vehicle - "A safe haven for children in disaster."
"Kids know this bus is for them," says Kathryn Martin, who has spent the last year working to make the bus - named for her 2-year-old son who was killed in a tornado Nov. 6, 2005, in Evansville, Ind. - a reality. "Kids are drawn to it. They want to go on the 'happy boy's bus.'"
Martin said the bus is the first in the nation to offer mobile day care immediately after a disaster.
Her goal is to be able to have the 40-foot bus - one of several she eventually hopes will be built - go to disaster areas to provide immediate assistance for children whose parents are struggling to cope in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
"Having gone through the Evansville tornado and having lost one of my four children, I know how important it is to help children maintain their innocence in these disasters while providing parents a few hours to attend to their own recovery needs," Martin said.
"CJ's Bus will enable parents to take the time to deal with paperwork as well as the opportunity to just breathe," she added. "CJ's Bus will allow children to play and have fun with other children who have suffered the same devastating events as one another.
Fund-raising events were still being held to help pay for the $150,000 vehicle. The bus was specially designed to expand to provide 280 square feet of interior space. It can accommodate up to 30 youngsters and is geared to children ranging in age from 3 to 12.
The bus will be staffed by four to six certified volunteers trained by the Church of the Brethren's Children's Disaster Services. The staffers also will undergo national background checks. Martin said talks were ongoing about having Brethren volunteers work on the bus.
Fill the void
Martin said the bus was designed to fill the void between the time a disaster occurs and when an organization, such as The United Methodist Church, can establish a child-care center in a building in a stricken area. Typically, she said, that takes about two weeks.
"So between the immediate aftermath of the disaster, for two weeks it's left up to the Red Cross and other agencies and the community and a lot of them just don't do only for children," she said. "So we thought, well, we have all these organizations when everything is OK for kids. What happens when it's not?"
Volunteers on the bus will not be teaching youngsters or providing mental-health care but will offer "play care," which she said has proven to be effective in high-stress situations for children. Play care essentially allows children to return to being children as soon as possible after a disaster in a safe and secure environment.
In the meantime, Martin is keeping a close eye on a Congressional bill - CJ's Home Protection Act of 2007 - that would require weather radios to be installed in all mobile homes manufactured or sold in the U.S. Martin already has helped push a similar bill through the Indiana Legislature.
Inexpensive, life-saving weather radios can be purchased at electronic, home building and large merchandizing stores.