Half the Sky’s first BigTop children’s activity center (with pre
A little over a month after Sichuan’s May 12th earthquake, we opened Half the Sky’s first BigTop children’s activity center (with preschool, art classes and counseling) in a refugee camp in Dujiangyan, near the quake’s epicenter. In a town that has experienced so much sadness, the opening was a happy, festive occasion to welcome a new oasis for fun and support for the children and the community. On hand for the opening were city and ministry officials, child trauma experts Marleen Wong and Suh Hsiao Chen of National Center for School Trauma and Bereavement, and psychologists representing our newest partners in this important effort, the Mental Health Centre of West China Hospital at Sichuan University.
The experts offered some training for assembled volunteers and, as at every celebration worth its salt in China, a group of adorable children sang and danced for the crowd. For a brief moment, the earthquake seemed a world away.
Even before the opening the BigTop had become a magnet for children, a place where they can play and share even their most troubling earthquake experiences. A few days earlier, when the furniture was being painted, curious children arrived again at the tent and were disappointed not to be allowed in because of the paint fumes. Half the Sky staffers couldn’t bear to send the children away so they set up a table outside the tent, on the concrete platform (above the mud) where the children played with bubbles and toys.
Three little girls made themselves comfortable and the oldest, a nine-year-old, immediately put a plastic doll face down under a toy table to protect the doll from an earthquake. She told her friends and a Half the Sky staffer about the day of the quake, when her teacher ran out of the classroom, expecting the class to follow. Instead, the children sat at their desks until they heard their teacher yelling that they should get out as fast as they could.
All three girls then started cooking with toy utensils, chopping up leaves with a toy cleaver to make soup. When asked why they were only making vegetables, one girl said solemnly: “Because we are very poor. This is all we have.”
Another girl, around 10, took advantage of the ample art supplies in the tent to draw a girl with pigtails and a rainbow. She solemnly explained that she wants to be a mathematician and the drawing was not a self portrait. It was a drawing of her best friend, who after the earthquake left the area and now there is no way to contact her: “I am afraid I’ll never see her again.”
While the volunteers and staff at the tent will provide “psychological first aid” for the children, they will also refer children to professionals at the Mental Health Centre of West China Hospital at Sichuan University when first aid is not enough. Children like a terrified 6 year old girl who, after 50 hours, was the only survivor rescued from her primary school. Protected by the body of her teacher, she survived with minimal physical injuries. But no one could protect her from the emotional trauma of waiting for help for so many hours in the school where her friends and her teacher died and - after all that - learning that her father did not survive.
Of the many volunteers who helped in the tent or attended our trainings none is more impressive than a group of eight survivors from the collapsed Juyuan Middle School, where perhaps 900 children died. Whether pitching in to sweep rainwater from the BigTop before its drainage problems were fixed, or helping to set up toys on newly painted shelves, or playing with children, these impressive, hardworking teenagers have all decided that they want to focus on helping others rather than on what they lost on the day their school collapsed around them: “We received a lot of help from others. Now we can help. When we help people it helps us,” says one of the students, who gathered in a circle in Half the Sky’s BigTop.
One smiling boy bears the most obvious scar of that day—a gash that took fourteen stitches to close. It runs alongside his eye down to his mouth.
Like all of the children who survived, he is mindful of friends who did
not: “At first I felt guilty that I survived. Now because I am volunteering I feel more comfortable.”
The students from Juyuan also provide an example of what was perhaps NCSTB’s Dr. Marleen Wong’s most surprising message to the caregivers she trained in Sichuan. In the midst of the all-too-obvious devastation and pain wrought by the earthquake, Wong introduced new research about a phenomenon called “post-traumatic growth.” A small percentage of children, says Wong, will make positive life changes that are a direct result of a trauma or a disaster. These are the children, says Wong who become “wise beyond their years, more mature, have a deeper appreciation of life,” in the wake of a tragedy. “They have new values and life priorities.”
One Juyuan student explains that not only has he resolved to volunteer in the wake of the earthquake, he has also resolved to change his life:
“Before the earthquake I was not into studying. Now I think it is the most important thing I can do so I can help my country. I can bring hope to the people in Sichuan.”
The day after BigTop #1 opened, I had the great honor of carrying the Olympic Torch on behalf of China’s orphaned children, especially those newly orphaned in Sichuan and Chongqing. Fifty preschoolers from our Half the Sky programs in Chengdu and Chongqing joined me on a rainy Sunday in Wanzhou, Chongqing. It was an exhilarating and wacky time. And we did manage to tell the children’s story – at least to the Chinese media (in the end, no foreign media was allowed.) We were on the front page of the China Daily and featured on national TV news. We didn’t quite go global, but it has been wonderful to hear from so many Chinese citizens who want to help orphaned children. Children in their own communities that they didn’t even know existed.
Slowly but steadily, Half the Sky is beginning to find ways to recover from the disaster too. Although we are now firmly committed to helping the newly orphaned and displaced children of Sichuan heal and hopefully find their own “post-traumatic growth,” we are ever-mindful of the many thousands of children to whom we’ve already made a long-term commitment.
Right now, our first Blue Sky provincial training is underway in Hubei Province. Over 100 caregivers from welfare institutions where Half the Sky has no programs are at our model center in Wuhan learning about HTS’
approach to providing family-like nurturing care to orphaned children. We are now offering Blue Sky training sponsorships – a great way to help us reach our goal to put a caring adult in the life of every orphaned child http://give.halfthesky.org/prostores/servlet/Detail?no=90
This fall, funds permitting, Half the Sky will open new Blue Sky Model Centers in Xian, Harbin, Shenyang and Qingdao. We are no longer accepting applications for this year’s volunteer build but we dearly hope that you will consider sponsoring a child or supporting the new model centers in other ways.
You have been so tremendously generous during these awful weeks. Now, as the Sichuan story fades from the news, we are even more grateful that you continue to remember the children whose struggle is just beginning. I don’t know how we can ever thank you enough for all you have done and continue to do. I hope that watching our progress as we work to rebuild young lives – in Sichuan and all over China – will be thanks enough. You know we will always keep you informed!
Even before the opening the BigTop had become a magnet for child