Children's center receives Seewall installation

An interactive Seewall in the lobby of the Dee Norton Children's Center in Charleston is designed to put abused children at ease while they wait to be evaluated.

On a recent weekday, the lobby of the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center was crowded with children who had been taken from homes where they may have been abused.

The staff expects to see 1,400 of these children this year at the facility at 1061 King St. in Charleston.

One boy, about 8, was crying and trying to get out the front door. An older girl, maybe his sister, calmed him down and directed him toward a seat.

Being taken into a strange environment for evaluation can be traumatic for a child, especially one who has been abused. The lobby is full of books and toys to try to make the visit more pleasant. Trained counselors also are there to comfort the children.

One little girl who looked to be about 5 was sitting in front of a big cabinet moving tile magnets around. A video of a sea horse was playing above her on a screen in the cabinet. Soft classical music wafted from a set of speakers.

The installation where she was playing is called a Seewall. It's designed to amuse and comfort anxious children and parents. The Medical University of South Carolina has four of them. The children's center received one in November.

"What's so wonderful is watching the children interact with it," said Elizabeth Hocker, the center's executive director. "It helps add to the ambience of a place that's safe and secure and very, very happy. It also provides a lot of calming influence for the parents."

Seewalls are built and installed by Seewall Child, an organization based in Beaufort that "uses the power of art to transform the human spirit."

Hocker succeeded Libby Ralston when the center's founding director retired in November after 20 years. The Seewall was named the USS Libby Ralston in her honor.

"The first child into the center on the morning following your installation stood in front of the Seewall, threw up his hands and tilted his head skyward and said, 'Wow' and immediately began interacting and exploring your gift," Ralston said in a letter as director emeritus to Seewall Child last month. "An unexpected outcome has been the 'calming' effect the music has on all in the waiting room including staff who work in the waiting and reception area."

Seewall Child tries to give crisis centers, orphanages, special-need centers and child-based relief organizations "a creative tool to be utilized as a positive distraction from a stressful environment," according to organization's website. Seewall Child approached the children's center to see if it wanted one, Executive Director Olga Stamatiou said.

"We'd like to do more in Charleston," Stamatiou said.

Donations from the Joanna Foundation of Sullivan's Island, the Gehrken Family of Mount Pleasant, Sawgrass Technologies of Mount Pleasant, Vapor Apparel of Charleston, Every Day Gourmet of Mount Pleasant and Anne Buck and Jodi Knovak of Mount Pleasant helped pay for the unit.

The center also sold tiles for a mural that will be mounted on a wall in the lobby.

The sea-life video was filmed at the S.C. Aquarium, according to Rocco Zappia, a Seewall volunteer who worked the camera.

The center works with 39 partner agencies to evaluate children in Charleston and Berkeley counties for sexual or physical abuse or neglect and counsels them and their families.

"They can be healed, so they don't have to be scarred by this for the rest of their lives," Hocker said.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.