Marked off with an orange plastic fence, the square space seemed tiny inside the huge Atlantic City Convention Center exhibit hall.
But the Kids Zone is giving children displaced by Hurricane Sandy a place to play again.
Most area children had returned to school Monday, where school officials made extra efforts to get them back into their normal routine while recognizing that nothing else about their lives was normal. For those still in shelters, the Kids Zone provides a place to play and a reprieve for parents trying to find help and housing.
“This has given us (parents) a break to do what we have to do,” said Marisol Tapia, of Ventnor, who applied for federal housing aid for her family of six after her husband left for work. “The kids are really bored and they miss their toys. But we really have no home to go back to.”
The Kids Zone was one of five play areas set up by the national group Save The Children in shelters in New Jersey and New York. President Carolyn Miles, who visited the Atlantic City site Sunday, said she was struck by how many times some of the children have moved since the storm.
“Our activities are focused on just letting them be kids again,” she said. “We are giving them a place to play.”
That space was appreciated.
“I’m bored with video games,” said Roberto, 12, of Atlantic City. “I didn’t think that was possible. I’d really rather be outside. I’m ready to go back to school.”
Sheyla, 12, also of Altantic City, couldn’t remember where she was before returning to Atlantic City, only that it took a long time to get there. She, her mom and five siblings are now staying in a hotel that she said was nice, but she was bored and ready to return to school.
A play rug covered the floor, and small children ran trucks and cars around it. Others built Lego structures or did craft projects. Carlos Tapia, 13, played chess, but said he missed his books, especially the Percy Jackson series he is worried was ruined by the floodwaters. His older sister worried that she wouldn’t be able to go back to Altantic City High School because she had no school uniforms.
Atlantic City school Superintendent Donna Haye said she anticipated that problem and sent a memo to all principals saying the uniform would not be required of displaced students until they are resettled.
The district sent buses to the shelter Monday to pick up students, but some parents, still concerned about living arrangements, opted to keep their children with them.
Haye said they are happy to have all the children back and tried to make the day as comfortable and familiar for them as possible.
“They missed the socialization with their friends,” she said.
As a central clearing site for families, schools are working to identify family needs such as clothing, food or counseling. The Atlantic City, Ventnor, Wildwood and Tuckerton schools have become pickup and drop-off centers for food and clothing.
Stafford Township School District’s Extended Day Service opened at the McKinley School this week as a child-care site, providing meals, arts and crafts projects, and access to the school gym and computer lab.
“It’s a clean, safe place for them to be while their parents are cleaning up or going back to work,” said Stafford district spokeswoman Karina Monanian.
Haye said the schools will be a stable haven for children and their families as they plan for the future.
“Many of our families are renters and don’t know where they are going to go,” Haye said.
Sarah Thompson, of Save the Children, said at first they just let the children play, but on Monday they set up a schedule that included some free time but also an arts and crafts period, ball games and story time. Some children drew pictures of their now ruined homes and the Save the Children workers watched, listened and looked for signs of stress.
Miles said many shelters had cots and food ready but could not meet the specific needs of small children, including cribs, diapers and formula. Tapia said her 2-year-old had trouble staying on a cot and woke up crying, but shelter workers set them up in a corner where they could configure a safer arrangement.
“Our first priority is meeting those basic needs,” Miles said. “Then we look at the psycho-social issues and the trauma of losing their homes.”
She said some children are resilient and bounce back, but others need more attention. Parents should try to remain calm and not alarm the children.
“You can see they are already nervous about another storm,” she said.
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