Creating a safe space for children displaced by conflict and crisis

The Schoolbox Project provides mobile trauma-informed education, art, and play to children in refugee camps and crisis situations.

The Schoolbox Project provides mobile trauma-informed education, art, and play to children displaced by conflict and crisis.

Executive Director Belle Sweeney says the organization was founded in 2016 in response to urgent needs that she and others experienced first-hand as independent volunteers responding to the refugee crisis in Greece.

Sweeney was on the Isle of Lesbos, receiving boats of exhausted migrants who believed they had completed their journey to safety. She and other volunteers offered the refugees dry clothing and pointed them in the direction of services.

From there she found her way to the registration camp of Moria, and to the camp’s children's program. In subsequent trips, she landed in Piraeus, on the mainland in Athens, where she describes a tent city of roughly 5,000 people.

painted schoolbus To date, the Schoolbox Project has served 11,000 children and provided trauma-informed training to 500 people in five locations. (Photo: The Schoolbox Project)

“I thought I would try to replicate the children's tent at Moria, because it worked so well. But the culture of scarcity was quite different there,” says Sweeney. “It is quite different [when just arriving] than months later when they're in this tent city. There’s deep despair, abandonment, confusion, just straight-up boredom.”

There were no children’s services at the Moria camp and any resources Sweeney brought to engage the children — crayons, drawing paper, etc. —were quickly lost to the sea of people. One day she noticed a nearby shipping container. It sparked the idea to rent one to transform into a children’s center at the refugee camp.

“And then something unexpected happened; within a few hours it was decorated with a mural, it was stocked with supplies, and volunteers were running activities and the children began to settle because there was a ‘container’ for them,” says Sweeney.

The program in Greece continues offering services today.

a child walks into a converted shipping container The Schoolbox Project converts shipping containers, schoolbuses, abandoned buildings, tents, bamboo structures — or even sidewalks — into classrooms. (Photo: The Schoolbox Project)

To date, the Schoolbox Project has served 11,000 children and provided trauma-informed training to 500 people in five locations. In addition to the program in Greece, the Schoolbox Project offers services in Bangladesh, Syria, disaster-stricken regions of the U.S., and is in the process of implementing services along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In each program, Sweeney says that trauma-informed care is a priority. Along with providing educational lessons and play, Sweeney says that the Schoolbox Project’s volunteer network is “an army of child-protection and trafficking-prevention watchdogs, who are all trained on the neurological impacts of trauma and are committed to looking at all behavior as communication.”

men gather outside schoolbox project in Bangladesh the Schoolbox Project offers services in Bangladesh (pictured), Syria, disaster-stricken regions of the U.S., and is in the process of implementing services along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo: The Schoolbox Project)

For this reason, she says, the sites they manage never kick children out for behavioral issues. They have one-to-one services available in each of their programs to meet kids where they are at emotionally.

“Kids cannot learn when they don't feel safe. That part of the brain is just totally shut down,” says Sweeney. “I feel committed to getting information into the hands of anyone who's interacting with children.”

The program is also community-led, meaning that volunteers don't enter communities that they are not a part of and tell them what they need.

“We often don't know what we're going to do before we get there,” says Sweeney. “So we listen, we partner, we get out of the way.”

After Hurricane Harvey, for example, volunteers headed to Texas in the Schoolbox Skoolie, a mobile, child-centered space that operates out of a colorful converted school bus. Sweeney says that they partnered with local cleaning crews and simply parked the bus in neighborhoods conducting deep cleanings of flooded properties and engaged with one neighborhood of children at a time.

After the October 2017 firestorms in Sweeney’s home region of Sonoma County, the Schoolbox Project partnered with other local organization to provide a safe space for special needs children while schools were closed or burned.

inside look at converted schoolbus A peek inside one of the mobile Schoolbox buses. (Photo: The Schoolbox Project)

The Schoolbox Project is also preparing to deploy the Schoolbox Skoolie to the U.S.-Mexico Border. Sweeney says that volunteers will be collaborating with the network of decentralized relief efforts that are currently providing services.

Specifically, the Schoolbox Project will be providing a child-friendly space at medical and legal clinics helping immigrants. Sweeney says they also hope to offer support to unaccompanied minors.

Founding the organization instead of simply volunteering in her free time was a clear and easy decision:

“It became very personal for me quite early. My own background and interest in trauma and how it informs behavior comes from ten years as a foster-parent, and my own experiences as a mother,” says Sweeney. “I think that sometimes you just are compelled, and when your heart is telling you to stay involved in something, it's usually not wrong.”

“We believe that refugee-led contributions are truly the antidote to fear-driven rhetoric and policy,” she adds. “Simply creating opportunities to amplify the voices of people on the move, and supporting them in designing their own services, we are contributing to broader social change.”

profile pic of writer Dani Burlison

Dani Burlison has been a staff writer at a Bay Area alt-weekly and a contributor at Ms. Magazine, Yes! Magazine, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Tribune, KQED, Made Local Magazine, WIRED, Utne, Shareable, and more. She has a Master’s Degree in Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community from New College of California and teaches memoir writing at Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County.

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