UCLA Health Child Life Specialists bring warmth, support to migrant children in Long Beach

Tracy Reyes Serrano offers a personal view of the humanitarian effort at the emergency-intake site.

When Child Life Specialist Tracy Reyes Serrano learned UCLA Health would be providing care for unaccompanied migrant children at a pop-up shelter in Long Beach, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it.

“Both my parents immigrated here with my older brother, so it’s something really close to my heart,” Reyes Serrano says, “knowing that a generation back or a generation forward that could have been me.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services opened its most recent emergency-intake site to care for migrant children at the Long Beach Convention Center in April, where UCLA Health physicians, nurses and other personnel are providing comprehensive medical care for the kids — from COVID-19 testing and childhood vaccines to addressing acute conditions and offering psychological support.

UCLA Health has partnered with UCI Health and Children’s Hospital of Orange County in the humanitarian effort.

Reyes Serrano typically works at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, where she and other Child Life Specialists help pediatric patients understand medical procedures and foster a feeling of comfort and agency among kids in the hospital. She was eager to bring that energy to the emergency-intake site, but learning how best to support the migrant children has been a process of discovery.

“In the hospital, we are in designated areas and we’re doing procedural support — we’re normalizing the hospital environment and explaining things to kids in a developmentally appropriate manner. Our main focus is: Where is the highest stress potential for kids?” Reyes Serrano says.

Tracy Reyes Serrano is one of the Child Life Specialists helping to care for migrant children at the Long Beach Convention Center. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

“So when looking at this situation, we’re seeing there’s definitely a high stress potential,” she says of the intake site. “These kids are away from home, they don’t have any parents with them and there’s a language barrier.”

Nearly all workers on site are fluent in English and Spanish. Some of the children, however, speak only Mayan dialects, such as K’iche. Reyes Serrano immediately realized she needed the kind of pictograph speech boards medical workers use with non-verbal patients. “So the kids can point,” she says. “If they’re in urgent care – if they’re having pain they can identify using pictures what part of their body is hurting.”

In UCLA Health hospital settings, Child Life Specialists are quick to reach out with a comforting touch, but Reyes Serrano says that approach doesn’t feel appropriate in the context of the shelter.

“We’re not sure of these kids’ history or their relationship with touch,” she says. “So we’re working very closely with our other colleagues to say let’s avoid unnecessary touching. Let’s ask for permission prior to doing anything.”

Reyes Serrano offers a view into some of her other experiences onsite:


Child Life Specialists are playing a key role in supporting children through their vaccinations, as each is inoculated against measles, mumps, rubella and varicella.

“A lot of kids aren’t familiar with vaccines, or most kids think it’s the COVID vaccine,” she says. “I’ll ask the kids to tell me what they know about vaccines and then fill in the blanks, which is very similar to what we do in the hospital.

“I don’t want to touch unnecessarily. So I sit right in front of the kids and I leave my hands out. I say, ‘My hands are here. If you need to hold them, they’re ready,’ and just kind of let them guide that. We’re very patient and we don’t rush and we explain to them how to relax their body and make this as smooth as possible. I’d say nine times out of 10, after the vaccine is given, the kids start laughing. But it’s that nervous laughter, like ‘That was it?’ They’re like, ‘That was nothing!’ The great thing is that they’ve become our little advocates. Because as soon as they’re done, they go to their little mates and they’re telling them, ‘It’s not bad! It didn’t hurt at all.’

“The really heartwarming part is I walked one of the kids back to his group — because they’re all in designated groups — and some of his companions came up to him and said, ‘How was it? How was it? Did it hurt? Did it hurt?’ And he said, ‘No. It was so easy. And she’s there.’ He was pointing at me. He said, ‘She’s there and she’s going to help you. She’s going to help you so that it’s easy.’"

Free to be kids

When the children first arrive at the site, they’ve been traveling for hours by bus or plane or both. “They’re exhausted,” Reyes Serrano says. “They’re just going through the motions of everything, and I think that’s been a coping mechanism for them.”

But 24 hours later, they’re kids again, she says. “We see that after they’ve settled in, they’ve showered, they’ve eaten, that they can play and be kids. And that’s so reassuring for us. We want to see kids playing. We want to know that they’re feeling safe.

“They’re very curious. Everything is fascinating to them. My saving grace has been my badge. My ID badge is very sparkly. I have a ‘Star Wars’ clip with the Millennium Falcon on it. I have a button with my face on it, a picture of me so the kids can see what I look like underneath the mask. And they’re like, ‘What’s that? What’s your name?’

“They’re so curious about this environment. And the fact that they feel safe enough to ask questions, and they’re walking around the convention center waving to you. They’re saying hi and wanting to show you the bracelets they made. They’re very engaging, and that’s something I wasn’t expecting. the spaces have been well thought out, we have our Mattel Children’s Hospital logo out on stuff and we have our cartoons out in the waiting area — that makes a big difference. I think that really contributes to the warm environment that they’re experiencing.

“It’s such healing energy that we’re having out here and all the teamwork that we’re seeing — all that contributes to the environment we’re creating for these kids, and I think they’re absolutely responding to it.”

Learn more about the Humanitarian Care for Unaccompanied Children.

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