Half the Sky Foundation

Half the Sky was created in order to enrich the lives of orphaned children in China. We provide model programs and caregiver training designed to offer loving, family-like care to children of all ages and abilities. It is our goal to ensure that every orphaned child has a caring adult in her life and a chance at a bright future..
Jun 13, 2008

The Earthquake – a month later…and news on the Torch

Both the middle school and the primary school in Hongbai Town
Both the middle school and the primary school in Hongbai Town

June 13th, 2008

Hello Friends,

We got a call today telling us that, for security reasons, our Torch leg is now scheduled a day earlier. I will be running in Wanzhou, Chongqing, on Sunday, June 15 - Father’s Day. I will still run for the children, especially those of Sichuan. Somehow, we will manage to bring the children there. I hope it doesn’t change again!

I just arrived in Chongqing from Sichuan. Yesterday was the one month anniversary of the earthquake. We traveled several hours to a hard-hit mountain town in Beichuan, Hongbaizhen, and worked with children and volunteer teachers. I have added many photos to our website.

A couple of weeks earlier, we braved the rock-strewn roads and broken bridges of Hongbaizhen to deliver relief goods to the children. The whole town was in shock. As painful as yesterday’s visit was, we began to see signs that the town will slowly begin to come back to life. Our communications director, Patricia King gave me this moving report: An 8-year-old boy stands in front of the pile of rubble that had once been his school and explains that he was the last student to have been pulled out alive. When the earth shook, he was one of the obedient children sitting with arms crossed at their desks—some naughty boys were still outside, safe on the playground. For ten frantic minutes, trapped between a piece of concrete and brick on the second floor, he waited. His cries couldn’t be heard over the wailing adults, but finally when the crowd outside the collapsing school quieted down they heard him and came to rescue him with their bare hands.

In the first days after the quake, he couldn’t return to the pile of debris that had once been his three-storey school, but with the help of a volunteer teacher from his tent school, he has visited the site several times and now is not afraid when he comes back. Today, at 2:28, exactly one month after his world shattered, the boy and another child from the tent school placed their hands on their hearts, then bowed three times, saying goodbye to their friends who died at the Hongbaizhen Primary School. Finally these brave survivors vowed: “We will live our lives as best we can.”

In Hongbaizhen, an isolated mountain town where it took three days for the Air Force to make it on foot past a collapsed bridge while the cries of children trapped under heavy rubble grew weaker and weaker and then stopped forever, the pain is palpable. But one month after the earthquake children and adults are also expressing their grief, working to find a way to cope with their pain, and taking the first steps to rebuilding lives. Sitting under a tree outside a tent school only 100 yards from the collapsed Hongbaizhen Middle School, it took only minutes before a group of middle school girls, two with their heads bent into their arms and one sitting up straight, weeping and sobbing, opened their hearts to Vancouver psychologist Dan Zhang and University of Minnesota psychologist Pinian Chang, both of whom were also once students in China. A 14-year-old twin, who aches for her one-minute-younger sister. She escaped the building, but her sister didn’t. Finally her sister was pulled out of the rubble, but with no medical care available, her family listened helpless as she spoke her last words: “I hurt. I hurt. I am so tired. I think I am dying.” Now her grieving sister refuses to go to any school with more than one storey—she tried a middle school with two stories and dropped out after two agonizing days. Still she is trying to take comfort from “Invisible Wings,” the song she and her sister loved and sang together. “I know I’ve always had a pair of invisible wings that take me flying and give me hope.”

Two girls mourning their brother, a 10th grader, and a nimble athlete as well as a good student, who made it out of the building. But he went back to rescue three crying girls only to die when another piece of the building gave way. One of his sisters is tormented by regrets—why did she brush off her brother, who wanted to talk to her a few days before the earthquake when she wasn’t in the mood? Both sisters know that their brother died a hero, but they miss their older brother and cry for him as an adult volunteer encircles them in a hug to try to ease the pain. Meanwhile inside a white tent decorated with balloons and tinsel, a crowd of volunteers hungry for help sit at shiny wooden desks salvaged from the collapsed middle school. Executive Director Jenny Bowen tells them that Half the Sky’s greatest contribution to helping in Sichuan will be to provide training for caregivers. She urges them to identify adults in the local community who can be trained to provide consistent, long-term help for the children long after the last volunteers have gone back to their homes. When she tells them that Half the Sky is committed to working in Sichuan for “at least five years,” they burst into applause. It soon becomes clear why the applause is so heartfelt. These volunteers, some recently arrived and some soon to go back home to their own families, have bonded closely with the children and they know the children will need support for a long time. One wears a beautiful shell bracelet made for her by one of the girls who has become like a little sister. Another favored volunteer’s arms, face, and t-shirt have been decorated by playful children using colored markers. Both the volunteers and the children who cling to them are finding it difficult to even conceive of their leaving. Psychologist Marleen Wong and psychiatric social worker Suh Chen Hsiao of the National Center for Trauma & Bereavement tell the volunteers they have given the children a great gift by providing a school and a routine for the children. Research shows that children who go back to school soon after a disaster fare better than children who have no routine for a long period of time. They also praise the volunteers for developing such strong bonds with the children and then urge those who are leaving to find a new local volunteer they trust to work together with the children before they leave. They also urge the volunteers themselves to get together after they leave Hongzbaizhen to talk through their feelings among peers who understand what it is to try to provide comfort to traumatized children living in a tent school surrounded by rubble and soldiers wearing white masks spreading disinfectant on the site where so many of their friends died.

The volunteers, some with tears in their eyes, explain why they are worried for the children and feel helpless because they cannot help them more. They worry about a 5-year-old girl with a scar on her back from being buried by debris who screams whenever she sees a collapsed building, an unavoidable sight in this mostly leveled town. A thirteen year old boy, the last to be pulled out of the middle school, refuses to come to the tent school so close to where he was trapped. A six year-old boy whose two brothers died, draws a picture with cherries because his brothers liked cherries, but this volunteer thinks he is too calm, toomatter-of-fact: “I am so worried about him. I ache for him.” Wong tells them they have done well. “Do not underestimate how much good kindness can do.” She recommends that they continue to reach out to the 13-year-old afraid to go to school. Visit him at home, offer him some water, bring him some notes from his friends. For the 5-year-old, try to have her draw or tell why she is screaming and help her learn to breathe deeply when she is afraid so that slowly, slowly the screams become less frequent and finally go away. And for the too-calm child, sometimes children have a delayed reaction, which is why long-term help is socrucial: “We have to wait for the child.”

For the Hongbaizhen parents heartbroken by the loss of their children, there was no delayed reaction—they have expressed their grief since the day of the earthquake and they still show it in their eyes that well up with tears even when they express nascent hope for a future life. On this one month anniversary one tiny mom, her hair flecked with gray, shows visitors cell phone photos of the two children she lost. She lowers her arms to illustrate the unthinkable, the collapse of her daughters’ school.She walks slowly away, but not without first thanking Half the Sky and everyone else who has come to help. It is that support, she says, that has recently made it possible for her to start to at least imagine a future for herself without her children. And a short climb up one of the mountains that made Hongbaizhen renowned for its beauty before it became renowned for its suffering, parents are still trying to comfort their children, who died four weeks ago.

At the four-tiered hillside cemetery with hundreds of children’s freshly made graves, parents have laid things that their children once loved—a pink backpack, wrapped candy, spicy Sichuanese snacks, a big teddy bear and a stuffed monkey. A weeping dad injured in the quake, his arm still in a sling, burns paper money and incense and apologizes to his child. “I am so sorry. This is the first time I could come. I hope you don’t mind,” while his wife wails the lament of every parent who has wished that they could have saved the life of the child even at the cost of their own: “Mommy is here for you. How could you go before us? Please wait for us.”

At a tent school on the site of the collapsed middle school
At a tent school on the site of the collapsed middle school
At a tent school, children struggle to resume a normal routine
At a tent school, children struggle to resume a normal routine
Jun 12, 2008

Half the Sky Earthquake Update - June 10

Half the Sky’s first Big Top Children’s Center
Half the Sky’s first Big Top Children’s Center

June 10th, 2008

Dear Friends,

Since I last wrote, we’ve been working toward developing a more well-defined plan for addressing the emotional needs of so many thousands of traumatized children. We know we can’t help them all, but we are making certain that, using the resources you are providing us, we will maximize our effectiveness.

Under the guidance of trauma experts from National Center for School Trauma and Bereavement and volunteer pediatric psychologists from China, the US and Canada, our field staff has been training caregivers in shelters and camps and talking with many, many children. What we have learned has informed our long-term plans, which already have tentative approval from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

In the next couple of months, with your help, we will be creating giant tent “Big Top” Children’s Centers in temporary (estimate is 2-3 years) refugee camps at Dujiangyan, near the quake epicenter, to help the children as the town is rebuilt. Each will offer HTS preschool, after school counseling and art classes and other therapeutic activities for school-age children, as well as counseling and training for caregivers, teachers, parents and foster parents. The first “Big Top” is scheduled to open in QinJian camp on Saturday.

Funds permitting, we will also be creating new permanent children’s community centers in six quake-affected towns as well as setting up Family Villages, supporting traditional foster care, and other HTS programs for orphaned children who are able to remain in their communities, providing long-term support for thousands of children.

I stole away for a couple of days in order to write our proposal to the Ministry. In my absence, HTS communications director, Patricia King, wrote this report:

A Machine to Save the World from Earthquakes

“When I grow up I want to be a scientist so I can invent a machine that will predict earthquakes hours before they happen and I can take all the children to safety. And I will give the machine to everybody in the world for free.”

“All I want is to go home.”

“I want to be with my family.”

“I want the earthquake to be gone so we can be happy again.”

Who wouldn’t want to make these wishes of some of the youngest earthquake survivors come true? The wishes of children struggling to come to terms with a disaster that shattered everything they counted on—the rock solid earth they walked on, the mountains that were supposed to loom majestically above, not break apart, raining dangerous rocks, and most of all the comfort of their homes and their parents and teachers.

The children now attend a “tent school” in the large refugee shelter in Dujiangyan designed to house 15,000 people displaced by the earthquake. They are taught by volunteers in prefabricated, vinyl walled, 9×12 classrooms, each one packed with 40+ students.

The walls are decorated with children’s artwork. It is art that depicts the kind of world the children would like to live in, the kind of world they now know can never be. In this town where the most prestigious middle school collapsed and killed so many bright, ambitious students, one child drew a mobile school complete with a lookout telescope and radar to pick up any sign of danger. The school is floating on what looks like a cloud or a flame that can move it out of danger should the earth below start to shake again.

The Red Thread

A short distance from the refugee shelter and school, on a muddy, rock-strewn field, a huge, white tent with arched, plastic windows stands on high ground above the fast-moving Minjiang River. A large Half the Sky logo with its girl holding a red thread announces that this tent has been provided by donors all over the world, moved to help the children of Sichuan to whom they are connected by the proverbial red thread. One, yellow Ikea delivery truck and one truck with a small Half the Sky logo and the words: “Everything Donated to the Disaster Area” bump their way onto the field to deliver supplies for Half the Sky’s first Big Top Children’s Center. In a situation that is repeated over and over in Sichuan when people learn that Half the Sky is here to help the children, the Ikea truck was able to make the delivery only after a compassionate manager made lots of phone calls to bend the rules to allow the truck to deliver to a heavily damaged town.

All week Half the Sky’s field supervisors and other caregivers have been receiving training about how to provide “psychological first aid” to children in the wake of this disaster. Today the work is more familiar, the kind of work Half the Sky has been doing for 10 years during “builds” when rooms in government welfare institution are transformed into colorful, child-friendly Half the Sky centers.

It becomes clear very quickly though that there are unusual logistical issues for this first-ever tent build. The six inch concrete floor that anchors the tent is solid, but two puddles have collected inside after the last big rain storm. Straw brooms appear so the staff can sweep out the water and strategize about how to engineer a fix so the tent will stay dry during this rainy season in Sichuan. They are helped by a contractor from Guangzhou, who is in Sichuan to build roads wherever needed, including a road that will make it easier to walk from the huge refugee shelter and school to Half the Sky’s Big Top.

It is Dragon Boat Festival day and a holiday, but nevertheless workers on ladders bring electricity to the tent, hanging energy-saving bulbs from the aluminum rafters and setting up the fans that will cool the during the increasingly steamy Sichuan summer.

As the small chairs and tables, shelves for toys are assembled, and bright, turquoise chairs unfolded, the tent starts to look more like a Half the Sky center, a kid-friendly haven in an earthquake-ravaged town where the long task of removing rubble and rebuilding has only just begun. The toys will stay in their boxes for the children to open. There are puppet theaters, a toy kitchen with pots and pans and dishes, a doll house with a mom, dad and children. And there are lots of toy trucks and bulldozers, doctor kits, and uncharacteristically for a Half the Sky center, lots of soldiers, who were the first to reach Dujiangyan and other towns near the epicenter to help.

Nothing is the same anymore…

In Shifang City, Half the Sky’s Child Development Director Ma Lang approached a woman reading alone in a communal shelter where people were cooking and eating and two preschoolers were playing with water, “trying to be children.” The woman looked so young that Lang thought she might be a high school student, but she told Ma that she is a 27-year-old math teacher. There was a “calm coolness” in her eyes so MaLang was surprised that her eyes welled up with tears when Ma Lang asked: “How are you doing?” She answered sadly: “It is tough. I have been here all my life. Nothing is the same anymore. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the fields, the crops. Everything else has changed,” she said.

The teacher told Ma Lang that after the earthquake she helped escort all 41 children from her classroom to safety. Then she spent six, panicked hours that seemed like a year looking for her mother and her three-year-old daughter. Ma Lang put a comforting hand on her shoulder as they both found paper tissue and the woman continued with her story.

Then the Air Force came and carefully removed all the children’s school bags and clothes from the heavily damaged building. “It was very dangerous.” When the teachers tried to help, the soldiers said, “No, it is our job.” When the teachers volunteered to at least stand by the building to collect some of the children’s prized possessions, the soldiers said, “No. It is our job. You stay away from the building. It is not safe.” After retrieving the children’s things, the Air Force built a new, prefabricated school named the “Air Force Loves Children School” in six, working-round-the-clock days.

The young math teacher told Ma Lang that such help and such kindness from the Air Force and “so many people like you” has “made a huge difference” in the lives of those who survived the quake. But despite her gratitude for the help and her relief that her mother and three-year-old are alive, the woman told Ma Lang that there have been “many times” during the last weeks when she has wished that she hadn’t survived.

For Ma Lang, who has been working in the field since right after the earthquake, it is “overwhelming” to learn how many children and their caregivers need emotional support, even those “lucky” ones like this teacher, whose child and whose students survived the earthquake.

The psychologists who are helping Half the Sky train field workers stress that patience is key when working with traumatized children or their adult caregivers.

Caregivers in Training
Caregivers in Training
Pediatric Psychologist, Dr. Pi-nian Chang
Pediatric Psychologist, Dr. Pi-nian Chang
Jun 4, 2008

Half the Sky Earthquake Update - June 4

Dear Friends,

It was a Children’s Day with not enough children.

Here in Sichuan, Sunday was filled with both sadness and hope. For those parents who lost their only child, it was a day of immeasurable anguish. For those families still whole or partially intact, it was a time of sad resolve to get on with the task of rebuilding their lives and the lives of their children. For children who survived but lost a parent, schoolmates, teachers, home, the holiday toys and candies were small comfort. Still, life goes on and the children will slowly begin to heal. They will need help.

It is now reported that 7,000 children died on May 12.

But many, many thousands more survived. Thankfully, the numbers truly orphaned are much smaller than first believed.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Civil Affairs told us that 420 children are confirmed orphaned. The government continues to search for living relatives of another 1072. Those numbers, though, represent only a small portion of the many thousands of children who need help.

Children who have lost one parent. Children grieving for their lost parents even as they have been reunited with their grandparents or other extended family. The estimated 16,000 children who were injured during the quakes. And countless others children who are struggling to deal emotionally with the horror they have experienced. These are children whose lives were really just beginning—and now must begin again.

Thanks to your generosity, we have helped the surviving children by bringing them much-needed supplies, including supplies to the stranded children in the isolated mountains of Aba, where roads were buried under landslides, and to the children of Leigu, whose villages were threatened by flood.

Now that we have completed that first phase of our earthquake relief effort, it is time for Half the Sky to help the youngest survivors begin to heal emotionally. Though we have never provided emotional support for children in the wake of a natural disaster, we have over the last decade provided that support for 15,000 children living in social welfare institutions who have lost their families - delivering such care is the essence of Half the Sky.

In preparation for our first workshop with the US National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, our field staff spent last observing and interacting with children living in temporary shelters and welfare institutions. While the world is rejoicing that they survived, many of these children are mourning the friends and family members who did not and wondering why they are the “lucky” ones. Others are in shock, unable to face the pain of loss of those they depended on most.

At a shelter in Chengdu, one middle schooler who was evacuated from Wenchuan told our team:

“The first floor of the school disappeared. The second floor became the first floor. Our teachers were too busy helping us to have time for their own children. We carried two injured students from the collapsed building to a tent on a mountain top. We stayed in the mountains after that and lived on potatoes that weren’t ripe and shared 2-3 Bottles of water among more than 60 of us every day. Later, two students died in the tent. It rained and rained. We knew there could be landslides because we knew a big aftershock could happen at any time, but we didn’t know what to fear any more.”

And our staff filed this heartbreaking report from the Zitong Children’s Welfare Institute:

“A boy arrived at the institution with a bandage on one side of his head. The staff gave him a name and estimated that he is two years old. Every time the institution gate opens he runs to it and says “baba,” “mama,” the only words he knows. The expression of his face is one of sadness and fear without security. There was no smile on this face during the whole time we were there.”

On Monday, in cooperation with the MCA and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, we held our first Sichuan Caregiver Training Project workshop at the Chengdu CWI, a milestone on that long road to bring emotional relief to the children. While we tried to keep the first workshop small, because we knew that we needed to have time and interactive discussion in order to make plans for the next steps, it was not possible. The need for caregiver support is just too great. By the workshop’s second day, we included 90 volunteers who’d been working in shelters as well as administrators from the two largest shelters in Chengdu. There will be no shortage of trainees as our field staff and experts head out into hard-hit areas today.

We know that with this workshop our new work is just beginning .we have pledged to work with other organizations and with government to help the children in Sichuan for as long as help is needed. By the end of this week, we expect to be able to report more fully on our midterm and longterm plans in Sichuan. We anticipate that the work may last for 2-3 years. Thank you!

With love,

Jenny

Ps – For our many new friends - Half the Sky is a global NGO that establishes and operates programs that provide emotional and educational support for orphaned children living in 38 government-run social welfare institutions in China.

Half the Sky does not operate orphanages. It is not an adoption agency.

We exist for China’s children.

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