How pinwheels and Play-Doh could address post-tornado trauma in Lee County

At first glance, the zipped, plastic bags seem to contain an ordinary assortment of toys, the kind of goody bag one might pass out at a child’s birthday party.

There’s a bottle of bubbles, a book, a stuffed animal, some crayons and a jar of Play-Doh.

But there’s a reason these brightly colored packages, dubbed “therapeutic comfort kits,” will be passed out in tornado-ravaged Lee County this week.

A set of instructions tells parents about the not-so-obvious benefits of each toy. The bubbles are meant to teach children to take deep breaths and exhale slowly, a subtle way to reduce heart rate and stress levels.

Play-Doh gives children something to fidget with, perhaps making them more comfortable when discussing their feelings, but it also engages both sides of the brain, increasing resiliency.

Time spent reading the book, “Trinka and Sam and the Swirling Twirling Wind,” promotes bonding between parents and their kids, but it can also help them discuss the March 3 tornado that claimed the lives of 23 Beauregard residents, including four children.

The therapeutic comfort kits are the brainchild of Dallas Rabig, state coordinator for infant and early childhood mental health with the Department of Early Childhood Education, and the purpose, she said, is two-fold.

“A lot of these children have lost everything and lost every toy. Some place may give them toys but there’s nowhere to store them. The kit is designed to be all-in-one and something they can use for therapeutic purposes as well as being fun to do,” Rabig said.

The Red Cross established resource centers in Lee County last week and passed out its own kind of comfort kits, the usual, pragmatic bags of toiletries often seen in areas struck by natural disasters.

But Kelly Hodges, executive director of the Central Alabama Red Cross, said she has never seen anything like the packs she picked up from Rabig on Wednesday to have distributed.

“I have not heard of any other therapeutic comfort kits,” said Hodges, a 26-year veteran of the Red Cross. “Especially with all the deaths of children, I think it’s wonderful for their classmates, siblings, people in the community and for children.

“We forget sometimes, the parents have lost their homes, they’re having to rebuild, but the kids lost everything also.”

“We find that during times of anxiety, working with Play-Doh or stiff clay can help us manage those difficult emotions and talk through (our feelings),” Rabig said. “When a child plays with a slinky with both hands, it engages both sides of the brain. So it’s helpful when trying to process what’s going on around you, and it’s also a fidget to take your mind off things.”

Rabig was driving home from Mobile on March 3 when she heard news of the tornado and braced for the worst.

After learning of the devastation wrought in Lee County, where some of the schools have pre-K programs funded by Rabig’s department, she woke up the next day and began gathering items to build portable versions of her trademark basket.

“The original thought was let’s make some comfort kits for our students. Then we thought, well why not everybody? Our students are not the only ones in the community experiencing this traumatic event,” Rabig said.

On Wednesday, Rabig helped Hodges load 101 kits into a Red Cross van to be distributed at resource centers in Smiths Station and Opelika.

There are different sets of toys for different age groups. Toddlers receive teething rings and Play-Doh. Bags for 3- to 6-year-olds may contain a pinwheel instead of bubbles. Teenagers will be given an empty journal instead of a children’s book. Kits designed for special needs children have more tactile, manipulable objects.

The packages also include intricate coloring sheets for adults and information about seeking therapy, and the plastic bags ensure the kit is portable and waterproof.

We’re thankful. It’s a great need that will be met,” Hodges said.

Although this is the first time Rabig or the Department of Early Childhood Education has handed out therapeutic comfort kits, this may not be the last.

Rabig still has materials left over after receiving donations from Mt. Hope Elementary, Clay Clarkville Middle, Cleburne Elementary and Madison County Elementary schools, and she hopes the concept becomes a fixture in natural disaster relief efforts.

“I’m hoping the families are able to use this for stress relief to bring some joy and some relaxation into this moment of crisis. I’m hoping this idea takes hold and is something we can do more often,” Rabig said. “We’re having the discussion that maybe we should make some of these kits up in advance and hold onto them in case there’s another event so we have them ready to go.”