How to Address Childcare In the Midst of Disaster with Mikey Latner



“Disaster relief needs a space where we can provide support for kids because it has so many knock-on effects. The only way a community up and running again is if they have reliable childcare.” —Mikey Latner


Natural disasters can be very frightening for children. They may see or hear about things that are frightening, such as death, destruction, and violence. They may also be separated from their parents or other loved ones. 

But unfortunately, disasters can strike at any time, without warning. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that our children are safe and have their needs met during and after a disaster. 

Project Camp, founded by Mikey Latner is an organization that made this need its very mission. Along with their partners, Project Camp has become a sanctuary for young ones, providing safety in a fun and creative way. 

Learn more about Project Camp’s mission as Jennifer and Mikey revisit the organization’s origin and the process of creating a space of safety and normalcy for kids— from the organization and preparation to the actual building of camps. They also discuss the role of professionals in supporting children in the face of disaster, bridging the gap in the relief space, the importance of “writing your plans in pencil”, implementing strategic collaboration among partners, and how to help the helpers  practice self-care as individuals and as an organization.




  • 02:06 The Project Camp Mission
  • 07:46 Your Skill Matters
  • 11:59 Creating a Safe and Creative Space for Kids
  • 15:53 Meeting Kids Where They’re At 
  • 25:31 Growing the Camp
  • 31:57 Leveraging People to Do the Work 
  • 33:41 Self-Care in the Organization 
  • 38:47 Defining Service Delivery




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A big part of a community’s recovery depends on the solidity of its childcare. Learn how to address childcare in the face of disasters with @JenGrayThompson and @ProjectCampLA Founder, Mikey Latner. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season5 #HowToDisaster #ProjectCamp #traumainformed #community #childcare #children #compoundDisasters  #mentalhealthsupport #strategiccollaboration



05:40 “Disaster relief needs a space where we can provide support for kids because it has so many knock-on effects. The only way a community up and running again is if they have reliable childcare.” —Mikey Latner

09:24 “It’s important not just to be able to do the work well, but to be able to have the lasting impact to build the meaningful relationships that make that work even possible from the start.” —Mikey Latner

09:44 “It takes a lot of emotional creativity and integrity to be able to walk into a community and meet them where they’re at as opposed to where you want them to be.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson

17:08 “If the program is not working and kids want to do something else, we do that because it’s really about meeting and receiving kids where they’re at.” —Mikey Latner

24:00 “Good collaboration requires a degree of humility.”  —Jennifer Gray Thompson

35:58 “We work both offense and defense. And that allows us to understand each other’s jobs so that we can fill in for each other and be able to allow each of us to take time.” —Mikey Latner


Meet Mikey:


A former camp director with two decades of camp experience under his belt, Mikey founded Project: Camp with the idea that camp and childcare professionals have critical skills to offer in times of emergency. In developing our pop-up camp model, Mikey strives to use the structure of the camp as a vehicle to bring joy, safety, and peace of mind to children and parents impacted by natural disasters. He hopes this work leads to a seismic shift in the disaster response ecosystem, creating a more holistic, trauma-informed, and community-driven model that prioritizes the needs of families during emergencies.




Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, How To Disaster. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m so excited to bring you to our 4rth Season. Today, we have a very special guest, his name is Mikey Latner. I wanted him to come on to talk about his project, which is called Project:Camp. Essentially what it is, is a pop up camp for children, and it is deployed after disasters. Now this is a very simple idea, but just so important. Because one of the things that we most overlook in disasters is this fear of mental health. Mental health is very much a huge challenge after a major disaster. There’s the initial trauma, and then there’s the trauma that actually goes on for years. And unless the community is able to actually do very tangible things to really mitigate the trauma response in children and adults, then the actual prospect of how long that trauma will go on is really something quite stark. So today, I wanted Mikey to come on to talk about his work. I love that he works across all disasters. And I really love that he’s taken this simple idea, and then applied it to a very real problem, which is helping children be children even during a disaster. Helping them have fun, and have a place where they can sort of get away from how serious it is, but really attend to their social and emotional needs. And so please welcome to the podcast, Mikey Latner of Project:Camp

Welcome to the How To Disaster Podcast. 

Today, I have Mikey Latner with me, Mikey Latner. Mikey, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Mikey Latner: It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate the opportunity.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I want you to come on to talk about your own journey into the disaster field. But really to focus on what you created here with Project:Camp. Why don’t you tell us about it?

Mikey Latner: Yeah, I’d love to. So Project:Camp, what we do is we provide care for children. And by extension, relief for families and resilience for communities. Comes really from our own, my personal story. I grew up going to summer camp as a kid working summers as a staff member. And then I was a summer camp worker for over a decade. And it was during an immediate response to Hurricane Harvey that I was able to actually go with a group of camp workers down to Houston while schools were closed immediately after the hurricane and set up a pop up day camp. And that provided a space for kids to be kids and relief for the families to muck and gut homes to be able to navigate emergency surfaces to have the space to process themselves. And so we set up Project:Camp to do exactly that to create a space where kids can be kids. And by extension, really lean on what we believe as a pillar of our communities, our economy, our society as a whole which is childcare.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s so true. Soft infrastructure is so important. We’ve only had federally subsidized soft infrastructure, the form of childcare during World War II so women could go to work. Side note for those of you who did not, we did once upon a time have a piece of history a little bit. Yeah, it is. It’s very human people. Like that’s never been done, but maybe it has.

Mikey Latner: Eleanor Roosevelt.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yes. Right. She said to such a queen, I love the Queen. But what I’m always impressed by is when people see a need, and you know that actually zero in on that moment when you were probably watching Harvey from home. I see you guys are based in Los Angeles. So that’s here at the same time, like a couple months later, we had our fires in the North Bay. And then there’s the Thomas Fire in your own backyard. But what really prompted you even with all of your experience to look at Harvey and to say, I think there’s an opportunity here. Did you have a family member or some kind of connection there?

Mikey Latner: The summer camp I was working at was actually in Northern California. And I’m glad you mentioned because that camp was actually burnt down in a subsequent fire the same year. But our sister camp in Texas really leaned on its Houston Community and reached out and said, what can we do? And when schools were closed immediately after the hurricane, it was right before Labor Day, the community really responded with the need for childcare. And it was unique for me to see the application of a skill set and a perspective that I had. I didn’t really originally think about it in terms of applying it to disaster relief in that space, but be able to go down there and see, to be able to get involved, set up a pop-up camp for about 350 kids, we serve 500 meals a day, to be able to see a skill set and leverage in a totally new way when kids and parents needed it most when it could be accessible and useful to the community, for me, that really just sparked a light bulb. And both fortunately and unfortunately had the chance to do to pop-up camps again after the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa which burnt down the–

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Newman, where were you?

Mikey Latner: Very small world. We set up another camp in the Santa Rosa community. But the summer camp that I grew up down here in Los Angeles also put down in the Woolsey Fire. We were able to set up another pop-up camp. And all of those opportunities were really ad hoc. But it really, for me, solidified this space as you sit for soft skill support for the need for childcare and that kind of service delivery during this time of crisis. We learn a lot, I think, in our society on childcare. But schools specifically, we saw a lot of this in COVID and how schools became this huge delivery mechanism. They’re constantly a delivery mechanism for components of providing social support, social welfare. And so disaster relief needs the same thing. Disaster relief needs a space where we can provide that. Like I said, the support for kids because it has so many knock on effects. It’s their own long term mental health. It’s the ability for parents to, we were recently in Florida, in southwest Florida after hurricane, and we were working predominantly with the kids of utility workers, police, and medical county workers. The only way for that community to be able to have the staff out, doing the heavy lifting to get the place get to community up and running again, is if they’re able to go to work if they have reliable childcare.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s such an important thing to actually see. I should have to applaud you for that too. I don’t think most people think about that when they’re looking at the firefighter who’s coming to save your home, or your community, the police officers. The Tubbs Fire was really, NorthBay complex fires, we had over 11 major fires during that time. But we had all of these other deputies even come from Alameda and other places, because they were bilingual. And these had to serve day and night for many, many days. They have families and lives. And so we have to be able to support the helpers as well. And so I really applaud you for that. If I can just go back for you and your first experience with Harvey really quickly. One of the things that I know drew me into this work because I’ve started during the Tubbs Fire time as well. That’s my whole origin story. Even that was the most terrifying physical experience of my life, and it was also the most amazing human experience. I was so moved by how people responded. Well, except for a small group of people, they still have a little list because, whatever. But for the most part, people were wonderful. And Rebecca Solnit calls this A Paradise Built in Hell. And if you’ve heard that book, she’s a beautiful writer. And one of the things is that when we are confronted with major disasters, or catastrophes, most of the time people lean towards each other. And we usually don’t fall into a catastrophe like COVID where people then start to go at each other. So what did you learn in Harvey that moved you because it’s not your life’s work?

Mikey Latner: Yeah, the thing I really like to share, honestly, look at me, I’m not a firefighter. So when there is a wildfire, you shouldn’t send me to the fire line. That’s not where my skill set is. But in all of our communities, we have a wide variety of skill sets. One of those skill sets is youth professionals. So teachers after school care professionals, teens and young adults with babysitting experience, all of this exists in our community. So when looking at us and thinking about ourselves, it’s really about creating pathways for members of a community to get involved in response and recovery in the best way that they can really utilize those skill sets. So that’s how we recruit volunteers. We like to say that we don’t train people to work with kids, but we leverage those in the community who already worked with kids to do that work. And that manifests itself in some really powerful ways. When we were working in Plumas County during the Dixie Fire in Northern California, I worked there too. This is a very small community. It’s important for our camps to have a level of cultural competency that can make it a meaningful, welcoming space for kids. And the majority of our volunteers were either teachers in the Plumas County Public School System, or in the charter schools, or they were teams from the high school. And it meant that those were volunteers that had either direct connection to the kids that were coming to campus, some of them were literally their elementary school teachers, or they had the same lived experience. And there’s something for me sitting here in Los Angeles that I can sympathize with what’s happening within that community, but I can’t bridge that gap, only members of the community who are experiencing that can. It’s important not just to be able to do the work well, but to be able to have the lasting impact to build the meaningful relationships that makes that work even possible from the start.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really love that because I think that one of the things that I think people who don’t necessarily work in this space understand is disaster response takes a lot of creativity, and it takes a lot of emotional creativity and integrity, and to be able to walk into a community and meet them where they’re at as opposed to where you want them to be. And I think that where we have breakdowns and disaster responses when we try as disaster professionals now to actually impose our own worldview of how something should be. How wonderful that you were also in the Plumas fire because for people who don’t know, the Dixie Fire burned for about 96 days, Greenville burned down about midway through 821 people who really loved their town. They’re rebuilding now, and that’s great, and they’re working on rebuilding back more resiliently, all of these things. Greenville is not Santa Rosa. They are not the same one has, Plumas County has 15,000 people in it. Sonoma County has 500,000 people in it. Rural communities, which are my personal passion, deserve a lot more respect than they’re given in this field and the people who are residing there. And so I love that you said, bridging that gap. I don’t have to pretend to be them. Do I drive a truck now so that they will accept me? It’s true. They didn’t like my Volvo, and didn’t play well in rural America at all. I let go with my run track and they’re like, okay, maybe she’s okay. But that’s a real skill, though. And what lessons have you learned along the way about adapting, one of our main core values that After The Fire is serving the community that’s in front of you. So tell me how that manifests because I can hear that in your language.

Mikey Latner: I think the biggest component that really pushes us in that direction, in addition to us wanting to create that space, is that in order to work with kids, you’re literally working with the most precious important thing to a set of parents. And so building that trust for a parent even in the midst of a very impactful, confusing, ever changing disaster to say, okay, I’m gonna leave my kid with you, and they’re going to be safe. I know that they’re gonna be safe because I have to go do these other things. Creating that relationship has really meant asking and being open to feedback at all times. And we recently experienced that we were working with Santa Cruz County in Monterey County. We were really working closely with Office of Emergency Services and Office of Ed, looking to see if we could be supportive of pop up camping specifically for the community of, and we spent several days with them really assessing need be able to go out to the community and figure out what they needed to assess for the school districts themselves, what schools could be reopened? Where could kids be? And we ultimately didn’t set up camp because the schools decided we’re going to send kids back. This is how we’re going to adjust to, they lost middle school. Or middle school was heavily impacted. And so they were shifting kids around. But it meant that we were able to be engaged with the committee directly as a supportive resource and say, look, we’re a tool in your tool belt, but it’s your tool belt. When and how do you need it? We can do that. Hurricane response recently was a similar thing. We generally operate camp, kind of like, I’ll take camp soon, 9 to 3. But the Charlotte County who we were working with were sending county staff on 12 hour shifts rotating. 

So we’re gonna run 7 to 7 , can you run a 7 to 7? And it was important for us to be able to say yes, because if you practically leave that two and a half hour gap on both ends, there’s no ability for parents to be able to rely on that. And so being able to lend camp to the needs of the moment was really important to who we are as an organization. And it’s really, I think, an essential aspect of camp. Anyone who’s worked with kids will tell you, you should always write your plan in pencil because the program is gonna go like, something’s gonna go sideways. And that’s part of working with kids. That’s part of being a professional. It’s part of camp. And it’s ingrained in how we train our volunteers, how we build the program, how we adjust the program, that we ask the question of what are we really trying to create? What’s the space that we want to create for our kids? We set up a really cool painting activity, and they don’t want to do it because they want to be in the gym playing basketball. Let’s go with them. If that’s what they need right now, let’s do it. They’re great examples. We’ve had teens who will come to camp who are either in a shelter environment, or they’re packed in with relatives, or they’re in a hotel, motel with their whole family. And so sometimes, for the first couple of hours, that first hour of the day, they need to sit, charge their phone. And we have reliable internet. They need to be on TikTok and be on Instagram, we want to give them that space. That’s how they’re able to check in with each other. That’s how they interact with their world. That’s how they’re able to decompress what we’re trying to create as a return to a sense of safety and normalcy. And that’s part of that solution. Let’s go with that.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. Again, like that creativity and flexibility in order to meet kids where they’re at, the communities where they’re at. A really important part of what you do, which I really love too is, until really a few years ago, we didn’t exactly understand the real importance of tackling the mental health issue after a disaster. I love that you are trauma informed, so I’d love for you to talk about that. For people who are listening to this podcast, you’ve never been through a disaster, you can even think you’re not in trauma. But literally, everybody is in trauma. And it really does last for years, but it can be mitigated. And some of the ancillary effects such as the negative effects, domestic violence, alcoholism, things like that can be directly positively impacted and lower the race if you do have things like Project:Camp. Kids now have been through, like in Santa Cruz for example, they’ve already been through a mega mega fire in 2020 and COVID. And then all of these horrific flood events, and there’s been a couple of them just this winter alone. So when you’re dealing with compound disasters and trauma, what have you learned through that process? And what’s so important? Can you talk to us about that?

Mikey Latner: Yeah, absolutely. The way we train volunteers and how we structure our program is rooted in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study based in 2011. It’s a partnership between the CDC and Kaiser Foundation, and it really pinned together. We were talking about experiencing toxic stress, like a disaster, and its linkages to potentially lifelong, physical, mental and social negatives. It also created a roadmap for mitigating those long term effects. And the overarching themes are returning to a sense of safety. Re-establishing routine building meaningful relationships. And when we encountered a study relating working with a trauma therapist and LCSW, because we were looking anecdotally at camp. And saying camp, we know, is an inherently healing therapeutic space. Why is that? They said they don’t specifically talk about camp, but it starts to pin together. This is why having kids in meaningful community and cabin groups with their friends rotating through a day being on a structured schedule, being able to, names are really important for us. Knowing every kid’s name every day, being able to have that recognition. I spoke a little bit about changing the plan, we train our volunteers like, if the program is not working, kids want to do something else. Like I said, we do that because it’s really about meeting and receiving kids where they’re at. And it’s also about leveraging those youth professionals to be the first line of mental health care. There’s a scope of practice involved. We’re not mental health professionals, we don’t train mental health workers to do this work. But like I said, if you are a youth professional, if you’re a teacher, we can train you to work in a camp in a trauma informed manner with a trauma informed lens. And so being able to recognize behavior issues as a reflection of the incredible stress that our kids are under and being able to say, okay, this is how I will receive that. And this is how we can de-escalate. This is how we can mitigate it. This is how we can turn the day around. I think being able to focus on what we can do as individuals and being able to be a link in the chain to longer term mental health support, that’s really key. So we work with local therapists, with local mental health support, with school social workers when we identify kids that require additional support, to be able to get that support for them and to get those connections for their families.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think you’ve hit upon something really important, which is you don’t have to be a mental health professional to be trauma informed, and to be able to basically train to recognize signs, symbols and things that people need. And it’s really what communities need after a disaster for as many people as possible, if they can become trauma informed, then the impact is so much greater. I love that. If you see something, you can say something to somebody who is, but just the fact of taking the time and the energy to become trauma informed is so important. So I want to applaud you for that. You are in year five and a half, right? And so as an organization, and we’re having so many disasters now, how do you figure out your work plan? Because that’s a hard thing in a disaster with funding and other things that you are essentially training for an unknown event, and unknown time, and unknown place. You know that it will happen, but that’s really all you know.

Mikey Latner: Yeah, it makes scheduling vacations really hilarious. But I think everyone here can relate to that. I think for ourselves, going back to the essential components of community buy-in to what we’re doing, that’s really for us being a guiding light in where and how to get involved. Climate change has increased the frequency and severity of disasters. We spoke to it when you were talking about the impact that several climate disasters have recently added on kids and Santa Cruz. There is a disproportionate impact of all that having on. Like you said, rural communities, communities of color. And so looking at our work, sadly, there isn’t a shortage of getting involved. And so the challenge then is understanding what can we do? How can we do it? How can we create relationships? The tool is actually in the tool belt. We do two things, really. There are two sides of the same coin. One is popping up free trauma informed day camps and that response phase. And the other is the organizing and preparation work, where we’re linking together offices of emergency services with school districts, and in girls clubs, all youth professionals build planning so that it’s accessible when disaster strikes to be able to create pop up childcare.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I want to go into the relationships part because from moment one, and I bet you had the same experience. What makes this work possible? And moving is always about relationships, and building them is a constant thing that I do. I’m hearing that’s a constant thing that you do, and you’re often building the relationship and you have no idea how or if it’s ever going to be if it’s something we’re even working together. It’s such an important part of personal and professional development. It’s probably true in all professions, maybe. But in this one, I feel like it’s particularly true. Because then we’ll get calls or you’ll get a call, and they’ll be like, okay, no, you don’t do this. But who does this? People are in a hurry right after a disaster, and they’re really looking to fill a very particular need. That’s how I found out about you is Lorraine. I was at the Walmart conference with her and she said, I think she’s on your board. She was like, have you ever heard of Project:Camp? And I’m like, no, but I would love to learn more. And that was a year ago. It took us a minute, but we’re here now. So talk to us about how you build relationships. That’s a really hard thing to do in communities that have not yet been hit by disaster, because people are human and they don’t like to think about it until something really happens.

Mikey Latner: And I think there’s another layer that too is where people are looking for planning, they really are looking for something turn key. And what we do to a certain degree is we have a ready model, we have a team that has done this many times now at this point. But how can we do this in this community at this time? And that’s why the organizing and preparation work has been so important. And it really is because there are tons of people working in childcare in disaster relief. We’re constantly showing, there is a gap in planning, and preparation, and the response and also saying, okay, but we can help you fill that gap. We can train you to do it. We can do it ourselves. And so I think what’s been really positive is being able to be in rooms with emergency managers at county level at the state level, being able to talk to the federal government and say, this is what we do. This is an area where we’re at the nexus point of childcare and mental health support, and climate change. This is how we can start to develop this. I think it also requires a sense of humility going into this, and we’re able to have been doing this for about five years. We are a fast growing, but we are a growing team. We cannot be currently at every disaster. And I think our long term vision really should be that every kid that experiences disaster should be able to have this kind of meaningful space, whether that’s with us, or with our school district, or somebody else. But that’s the system’s change that we’re talking about. I think being able to talk to as many people as possible about the need for the systems change creates and that put us in a place to be like Memphis. We do camp, we do it really well. How can we learn how we fit into your community as emergency managers? How do we understand this community’s office of education? How do the schools in the school district interact with each other? It puts you in the position to be the expert in the room on what you do, but creating a table where you’re asking others to come to it.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: The really important part two is that I want to touch on two things. One is the factor of humility, and the other is collaboration. Good collaboration requires a degree of humility, also confidence in what you’re bringing to the table. We’re always learning. None of us have it all down even though, yeah, I’m a wildfire expert, but I feel like I’m in my infancy stage still learning what to do, and what’s possible, and what’s not possible. And also to dispose of ideas that I thought were good, but maybe we’re not actually relevant for the moment, and not become so wedded to them that I’m defensive about it even. I find that sometimes in building relationships where I run into issues, I guess, with people who do not possess collaborative approaches or humility and I’m like, I’m not sure how you’re going to make it in this field. But also, if you start with the idea of what you need and how can I help, then humility stays through part of that. So while you’ve only been doing this for five and a half years, same here for me, when people are looking at maybe doing something or executing a good idea they should not be daunted by that. You should be respectful of what people know and build relationships, but don’t undersell yourself for only being in it for five and a half years. And to do something so cool, and I said this in the very beginning, it’s a pretty simple idea, but well executed. And so what kind of challenges in your growth, guess its capacity and over demand for your services have you run up against in providing this really important simple service that’s so impactful?

Mikey Latner: A big piece of it honestly that supercharged things really quickly was, like you said, collaborating with some really meaningful friendships and partners. So I like to use it in and out as an analogy. We’re like in and out, we make a cheeseburger, we do that every time. If you ask us for a salad, that’s not us. But in order to get camp up and running in a disaster, we usually do it in 48 hours. They require us to be close collaborative partners, for those partners and to have a similar mentality. So we have a great relationship with Airlink. They fly us within hours and notice anywhere we need to go, our whole team. We worked really closely with World Central Kitchen who agreed to feed us wherever we go. And it goes past that. They don’t simply feed us, they will look for an ice cream, like an ice cream truck. The ice cream truck came to camp. I think being able to leverage those other kinds of expertise that plug into you that’s allowed us to grow camp, as it’s like the thing that is camping to grow our team really focused on that. And to say, okay, we don’t do mass meal service, but we know people who do it really well. I think the issue is not necessarily, I don’t think that other organizations can be our, strategic collaboration is a good way of saying it. Because what I’m trying to push against is where people are siloed where organizations will do this one thing because they know they do it well. And they only do this. They’re not looking at what others are doing in the same space, or how else they’re doing it. 

So we learn a ton from the people that we collaborate with, whether it’s the community or another nonprofit in the space, because we’re all trying to jump in at the same time, kind of in the same space. We all have to be able to play well in the sandbox. And so it taught us really to be able to, like I said, to be able to focus on the thing that we know we can do well, and to dive deep into how camp can be a fuel for trauma informed care. How can we leverage more youth professionals, and we can let World Central Kitchen figure out how they’re going to feed us because they’re good at it. And that I think is the biggest thing that I’ve taken away in these first five years in how we grow. And I think it really is highlighted and how we look at our strategic planning over the next five years is how we’re going to grow in order to do camp well and plug in more organizations that can support that effort, to plug in a big challenge for any nonprofit is fundraising. How do we tell the story of what we do? Like I said, inside of the context of all these larger issues. Project:Camp really sits at the nexus point of the need for childcare in this country, and the increased frequency and severity of disasters related to climate change, and the need for mental health care. How do we tell that story in a way that is energizing to those who are looking to get involved and to support that work?

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I do think one of the advantages is that you have is because you do immediate response. There’s a lot more funding in that space for the immediate what’s going on. One of the challenges that we always face is there isn’t as much funding in the long term recovery of those spaces. But that’s not to in any way, like cast shade. If I’m just jealous, to be honest. That part, I would kind of love because we do go in right away. But like two years later when we’re still sitting with Paradise, or four and a half years later, or whatever it is, people are still not rebuilt, they still need that, but our services are just different. So I’m excited for you, I hope that it’s easier for you in that space. I hope that people are paying attention to what an important piece you bring to this.

Mikey Latner: Thank you. I think there’s a coordinated moment happening. I’m not an expert in philanthropy, but we hear about more and more foundations.. People who are working in philanthropy are thinking about general operating support, longer term support. They need to be able to carve out space so that organizations can do the work that they’re talking about. They can do it over the long term. I think what you’re talking about in disaster relief in general really looks at the whole cycle of disaster relief, really looking at recovery and mitigation. And so we talk about ourselves with the simple fact like camps, it’s not gonna show up. I can’t just pull it off and toss it, it requires regular maintenance, requires a relationship and maintaining the relationships that we’re talking about. I think as philanthropy starts to move in that direction, disasters become more frequent as well. CalFire season gets long risks, hurricane season gets longer as winter storms become more of a thing. I didn’t grow up in LA understanding tornadoes. All these things are happening and really painting a picture of year round exposure and of the need for who would have all those assets ready to go year round. There isn’t a season for all this anymore. It’s constantly happening.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m glad that you pointed that out. There was a study by what I think it’s the center for effective philanthropy that came out last July. It said a lot of philanthropy has been looking at climate based disasters, and they want our climate change too. They talk about it, but they only put 2% of their resources towards it. And the reason they gave, and it was actually a very compassionate study, for the record, understood the challenges and the barriers. But as I said, it’s too hard. But I think the fact that they could admit that it’s too hard instead of saying it’s not important is actually a huge step forward. So I’ll take that, that’s fine. But I also do wish that they would do our approach, which is the same as yours when you walk into a community or an issue, you just start talking to the people who are doing the frontline work. And it really does become clear to you, and I do see signs of change. I’m glad for that. I’m also glad to see less pressure on you to keep your administration really low, because you’re super talented. What you’re bringing to the table are people. They have to be honored, and they have to also have health care. They have to know that if they’re going to do this stressful work, that they are not worried whether or not they can buy groceries for their own children while working at a food bank. This is not the world that we should be creating, but it’s the world that philanthropy valued for so long. But I am seeing a change.

Mikey Latner: It’s really moving from a goods oriented to service oriented approach. You literally took the words out of my mouth. We talked about program supplies. I’m really talking about snacks, sidewalk chalk, finger paint, all those kinds of things. But it really is about leveraging people to be able to do the work that they can do in the space that it’s needed. And so being able to look at it, it’s comparatively easier to move a pallet of water than it is to get the right mental health professional in front of the right people. It takes much more time, much more connection to community, much more infrastructure built up. But we’re recognizing more and more that these things are ever present in our lives and are useful in so many different ways that we can. We’re starting to look at, I believe service delivery as a way of being a multi tool, being able to use, as camp, be able to use the cheeseburger example, and be able to apply it in a bunch of different settings. So the way we respond with camp in a wildfire versus a hurricane, versus a tornado looks a little bit different every time. Who we’re working with looks a little bit different, but it’s the same core. I think we’re starting to understand that we can do that with services the same way. Not the same way, but in similar ways that we do that with goods.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that’s a really great distinction. I’m not even sure that I’ve heard it quite like that, and I like it. I’m going to steal it for sure. Actually, this is not a bad segue into my next question, which is one of the things I always like to talk about in our podcast is helping the helpers. So I see that you all are helping the helpers to make sure that they can get to work and their children are well cared for. But in your company culture, your nonprofit culture, how do you attend to self care within the organization? Because most people in a disaster are notoriously terrible at this particular skill.

Mikey Latner: Yeah, it’s a really important question. We’ve gotten along really from the beginning, which I think I wouldn’t have asked on my own coming from camp, but I think it is a reflection of the growing focus on long term mental health in this space, which I think is huge. And we were just at the International Association for Emergency Management Conference in Savannah in November, and there were tons of sections focused exactly on this topic because COVID highlighted it, but burnouts are real. For us, I think there are really two aspects to who we are that help us here. One is that we speak about ourselves as second responders. Times where they have difficult space logistically, emotionally, and we’re at camp. And so what we’re doing is creating, we’re not wallpapering over what’s happening outside, we create meaningful space where it gets talked about what’s happening for volunteers to share what’s happening, but we’re intentionally creating a warm, receptive environment. And that’s how we speak about what’s going on to the color of the shirts that we wear, and the language that we use, and the activities that we do is all meant to consider, return to that sense of normalcy and routine to lower the stress levels so that people can process what’s happening. 

Well, the other half I think maybe speaks more to us though is we have a very personal care approach to our company culture. So not getting deep into the HR components of all this, but being able to take time when you need it. We are an all remote team which serves us well as a disaster relief organization. We’re going anywhere anyway, so we might as well be anywhere. It allowed us to create flexibility for working parents to create flexibility for staffers to deal with, like personal emergencies to be able to structure ourselves and push each other to take meaningful time off to speak about how we take that time off and what we need. For me, I love checking my slack in the morning, even if I’m on vacation. Not for any other reason other than I just need to know what’s happening. That allows me to move on and to not go back and check throughout the day. And so we work closely with each other to understand, like, what do we each need to push each other to separate and take time off, and to be able to work collaboratively in that way all of us work. We work both offense and defense. And that allows us to understand each other’s jobs, so that we can fill in for each other and be able to allow each of us to take time.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s so smart, because I think that you could somebody swap in for you is the thing that I never was able to crack. In all the years I’ve been doing this, it’s not because I’m the best person out, it’s because it was just nature. There was so much to do, and so we have not been as intentional as you have. So it’s something I could probably very much take lessons from you on if I recognize after about five years. This is dumb as an organization to not have that component because you should never have any organization that depends so much upon one person. That’s not sustainable. So my goal for the next five years, actually, the next two years is to reverse that so that I am entirely not indispensable at all. Do you know that anybody can go in and have that same thing, but it took me a long time. Because every time I would add somebody to staff, I’d be like, oh, but now we can do this thing better over here. So I would never put myself on the list of things that could be handled better, so good for you for seeing that really, that’s a really big marker.

Mikey Latner: It’s a balance too, because you have the people you’re bringing in, like you’re bringing them in because they are creative, because they’re innovative. They have an expertise that you are relying on their skill set as well. It’s like how do you balance tapping into that and having an expert in a room with a bunch of experts in a room with the need to overlap too. I think there’s a recognition that I had a track coach in college that gives me this piece of advice. He’s like, look, I require you to come every day at 100%. Now, when you’re injured, 100% looks different than when you’re heavily caffeinated. All your arms and limbs are fully functional to be at practice. And so he’s like, if you can come every day and honestly say you gave him 100% effort. That is what I asked of you. I think for us as a company culture, we’re asking each other when we have to pop in for childcare, we have to pop out early to take care of a family man, that’s required. That’s part of who you brought into the space. That’s the whole person, you have to work with the whole person.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I totally agree. Anyway, yes, that’s been part of the struggle. And the secret at the same time is completing everything, but also making sure you are taking care of the whole person, especially as an employer. So that’s company culture that is going to last you for a very long time, so I applaud you for that. That’s good. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you on this podcast that you wish that I had talked about or something you would like to add in closing?

Mikey Latner: You asked great questions, like what’s really going on. And of course, I really appreciate it.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I like what you do, and I genuinely admire what you do.

Mikey Latner: So I think the one thing I didn’t want to talk about, we spoke a little bit of that when we talked about, it’s about service delivery, but we look at ourselves as a hub of services. So when you look at a mark or a lack as a space, we were bringing in lots of resources available so people can go from FEMA claim, to insurance, to Red Cross. We look at camp as that space, how can you be accessible to people? If they’re already dropping kids off and picking up kids for camp, how can you bring services, other services to them? How can you increase take up rates in disaster relief funding? How can we make switching schools more accessible for folks? How can you make meal service to take home meal service? And we often don’t have someone, a meal service provider who will provide us lunch and then we’ll come later in the day for pickup so that families can take dinner home. And so how can we look at ourselves as a hub of services and just looking at the ecosystem in general. How can we lower barriers for all of that kind of take up? That’s how we’re going to be able to get access to the things that we would like to provide people that we think are important that they also want to know about?

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really like that for another reason too, which is to think that so many of us who work in this field in the very beginning, we first had our disaster. We talked to other people in other parts of the country and there was no, this is why I started the podcast, How To Disaster. How do you even do this? What do you even do? Because people were always asking for a playbook. And then it occurred to me that the playbook exists in all these human beings who had all of this knowledge, and creativity, and dedication, and directed empathy, and compassion, but have turned it into something that has great impact and service to the community. It’s good to have a toolbox. You can write everything down, but there’s no substitute almost for a community of collaborative people who are like, oh, okay, I’m hearing that you may think you’re just telling me about the smoke damage in your home and this one thing. But in my brain, I’m starting my matrix of who does what, and who might be able to help you having nothing to do with what we do it all. But really return into the human playbooks for how to actually disaster so that the have piece I think is very important for all of us to take on.

Mikey Latner: Yeah, absolutely.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I just want to thank you. Thank you so much for being on the podcast and also to Lorraine for the introduction. And really, I saw her at two conferences. And the last one, I saw her at for US Chamber of Commerce. She asked me again, I was like, I’m gonna do that. So it was a small community. I just really want to thank you, and we will put information about Project:Camp in the description also about ACE, which is the trauma-informed care manual. We have people who worked on that who’ve already been on the podcast, and it comes up again and again. So I think it’s really important to have a link for that as well. But any other things that you think that we should include. So thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Mikey Latner: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.

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