Half the Sky’s first Big Top Children’s Center
June 10th, 2008
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
Pediatric Psychologist, Dr. Pi-nian Chang