Fire recovery program marks first anniversary

STATHAM - A fire occurs in a residential home every 79 seconds, according to the United States Fire Administration. After extinguishing the fire, good-hearted people and organizations help the affected family get back on their feet with food, clothing, furniture, shelter and cash.

But survivors, especially children, can experience profound, long-lasting trauma. The Children After the Fire program was created in 2005 to help youngsters who experience fear, anxiety and depression following a fire. About 50 supporters celebrated the program's one-year anniversary Monday at the Georgia Club in Statham.

A 2002 study by Jones and Ollendick revealed that 75 percent of children involved in a house fire said it was the most traumatizing event of their lives.

Barrow County's Children After the Fire program is the first of its kind in the nation, according to Lt. Scott Dakin, Barrow County Fire and Emergency Services. The organization provides counseling to children at risk for post-traumatic stress syndrome following a fire.

The program is funded through private donations - Wal-Mart recently donated $2,000. About 25 children have benefited from the program during its first year.

"I have been on the scene of a fire and it tears your heart out to see a little child crying who's lost everything," Dakin said.

Following the fire, a Barrow County firefighter shops with the child to replace cherished items. An education program teaches the survivor about fire and life safety. Counseling interventions use trauma-focused cognitive behavioral techniques to help the child cope and heal.

"The child puts together a scrapbook of good and unhappy experiences," said counselor Becky Lee. "Then we do a future page, which gets them to look at how their future can be."

Children at risk for post-traumatic stress syndrome might experience sleep disorders or exhibit sadness, clinging behavior, jumpiness, behavior problems, social withdrawal and psychosomatic physical complaints.

Dennis Gardin, executive director, Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation, at age 14 spent eight months in the hospital with burns over 70 percent of his body, including his face.

"I hid in the house for two years," Gardin said. "Thirty-five years later we are celebrating our one-year anniversary. It's sad that it took us this long to form this program."

Every year, about 2,800 children age 14 and younger are injured and 850 are killed in residential fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Those children leave behind grieving parents and usually siblings, too.

"We can't prevent trauma, but we can improve fire service and continue to educate the public," Gardin said. "I challenge us to look ahead to Families After the Fire. We are celebrating, but our work is just beginning."

Children After the Fire is partnered with Barrow County Fire and Emergency Services, Tree House, Barrow County Family Connection, Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation, American Red Cross, Barrow County School System, Winder Police Department and Barrow County Sheriff's Office.

For more information about Children After the Fire, contact Lt. Scott Dakin at 770-307-2987.