HOUSTON – In the midst of trying to find her husband and three youngest children, Hurricane Katrina (search) survivor Lisa Stewart temporarily lost her three oldest children in the cavernous Astrodome.
She found them Friday at a very human version of a "lost and found" department — a makeshift center where volunteers work to reunite children with their parents.
That's the center where children arriving bewildered and parentless get a big hug and a smile from volunteers. They also have a chance to play games to take their minds off all they've been through since the hurricane flooded New Orleans (search) and forced masses to rush for safety in buses. Some children became separated from their parents during the exodus.
"When they come in, I grab them and I hug them and I ask them if they are thirsty," volunteer JoAnna Clark (search) said. "The stories are unbelievable."
Stewart's trip to the lost children center came after she left her children aged 6, 7 and 12 with someone on the Astrodome floor so she could scour the crowd for her husband's familiar face. He had their 3- and 4-year-olds and 7-month-old. Police found the older children and took them to the center.
Stewart and her husband had decided in New Orleans to split up the family to make it easier to manage.
"They were taking the children and the babies and I had six of them," Stewart said of the bus preference system at the Superdome. "I didn't want to take all six, because I knew it would be hard on me with six children and trying to keep up with them. I took the big ones and he took the small ones."
Stewart, 30, thought her husband would be on the bus directly behind her, but "it didn't happen like that."
The volunteers at the center have a routine for the children they see. In addition to the compassionate welcome, they are asked their name and any details about when they last saw their mother or father.
"Some of them can give us a name," Clark said. "Some of them can't give us a name."
"One child was able to say that was his mommy and I said, 'How do you know?'" Clark recalled of one of the half dozen children reunited with a parent Friday. "He pulled up her sleeve and it had his name tattooed on her arm. So we knew that that was his mommy."
If the parents can't be located within a reasonable period of time, the children are placed in foster homes by Child Protective Services.
"We need to make sure someone is taking care of them, so they are not there alone," CPS spokeswoman Estella Olguin said late Friday. "It is really providing temporary shelter for these children until their parents can find them."
Digital photographs are being taken of each child at the center, she said. The photos and any information obtained will be placed in the agency's database, as well as the database of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"These kids need to be with someone familiar after all they have been through," Olguin said.
Once off the bus, the children are evaluated by doctors and those who are alone are taken to the center, where they can find toys, stuffed animals, snacks and volunteers excited to greet them.
The reunions with parents aren't always happy.
Clark said one mother became overwhelmed after her reunion and told them she couldn't care for her child.
"They are so desperate that some parents have come and said, 'Just take my child,'" Olguin said. "They just don't know what to do. It is usually that they just need someone to talk to and they reached their breaking point. We know that is usually just a cry for help and we talk with them."
Olguin said the goal is to get as many families back together as possible.
While there are only a handful of children at the center, the volunteers have a very long list of children who have been reported missing. Parents leave their children's names and other vital information, hoping that they will show up on another bus.
"We have a list of probably 500 kids that are missing," Clark said. "The list goes on and on and on."
"There are children everywhere out there that are lost," Clark said. "The scary thing is the list of children we have that are lost — not the children that are here, but how many people can't find their children."