Disruption in Young Lives
Michelene, a nine-year old girl now living with her mother and two siblings in a displaced-persons camp, smiles softly as she nudges her room monitor–a local teacher from the same camp–over to her table where she just finished painting a triangle tessellation. She beams a huge smile as the monitor holds it up, and her classmates look on approvingly. Michelene is just one of over 4000 children who currently attend integrated education programs facilitated by AMURT in Haiti at various camps and neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince.
Like over one million others, Michelene’s home was destroyed in the January 12th earthquake. Tragically she lost two of her younger siblings when her family’s home collapsed. Michelene, her mother, sister and brother survived the quake. Four days after, the family collected a few family treasures from the rubble, and moved to the camp where they continue to live in a small shelter built with sticks and tarps.
Meeting the Children’s Needs
Children continue to face hardships and on-going threats to their mental and physical well being with little respite. In the days immediately following the earthquake, it became clear that our efforts needed to focus on the most vulnerable population, the children, and our Child-Friendly Space program was born.
“Child-Friendly Space”, or CFS, is a term used in the international disaster relief community to describe a place where various types of support can be provided to children in a time of severe crisis. For the AMURT CFSs, we defined our goals in an integrated way, striving to address the whole child; that is, the educational, psycho-social, emotional and spiritual needs of those who experience hardship by providing safety, security and a transition to normalcy. Like all AMURT programs, our approach with these projects began with community engagement, carefully identifying needs, helping the community define their own goals and resources, and then providing integrated solutions that are principally implemented by the community itself.
Given the size and scope of the challenges faced in this disaster, our next step was to identify partners who share our goals and support our guiding principles. For this project, AMURT has partnered with two organizations—Catholic Relief Services, an AMURT partner on multiple past projects in Haiti, including the 2008 Gonaives disaster, and Kinder Not Hilfe, a German based NGO, that has worked with AMURT affiliates in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargiis and in Indonesia in response to the 2005 tsunami. This history of collaboration provided a strong foundation for our current work.
Once these partnerships were fully established, our team of community organizers, trainers, coaches and monitors, all Haitian nationals and many of whom were significantly and often tragically impacted by the earthquake, could begin their work. It is this coordinated team, the backbone of the project, that implements the creation of the CFSs. The team begins and ends all decision making processes with community consultation, direction and involvement. All CFS staff are drawn from a pool of applicants identified by the community itself.
In mid-February, when we opened our first CFS at our AMURT base, the air filled with a rush of excitement. Well dressed monitors, in crisply ironed skirts and shirts arrived early to set up the space. Excited but tentative children arrived tightly clasping their parents’ hands, and our training team scurried from tent to tent providing materials and coaching our monitors. In just a few days, the Delmas schoolyard, which had become AMURT’s disaster relief headquarters, was transformed from a drab dusty yard full of motorcycles, trucks, boxes and construction materials, into a colorful children’s camp full of energy, smiles, love and hope. In nearly every week since the first CFS opened, we have inaugurated an additional site. Working mostly in displaced-person camps throughout Port-au-Prince, as of May 1, 2010 we are running seven CFSs serving over 4000 children between ages 4 and 13.
Typical Day at a Child-Friendly Space
A typical day at one our CFSs starts with children gathering in their “home” space for the “Circle of Love”, a special time that starts with a guided breathing exercise, and continues with community building activities such as learning new songs, sharing a news item, a greeting or a personal thought. A “class” has 25 children supervised by three monitors. The children travel with their class, rotating through four tents housing different activities where they gain a balanced exposure to various types of learning. Our primary goal is to provide the children with a feeling of safety and security. This is achieved in part through team-building games, partner sharing, quiet reflection and open discussion.
As the CFSs have progressed over time, and in order to prepare the children to a return to regular school in the months ahead, we have begun to introduce more literacy and numeracy skills through a variety of play activities. For example, children read stories together, then create play-dough characters, and finally perform a skit with the characters to extend the story. A typical numeracy activity allows children to string colorful beads for friendship bracelets to learn about counting and patterns. Each day children also pause from the energetic activities to do some relaxing yoga posture. Monitors have been trained to teach basic individual and partner poses to stimulate the child’s inner strength. Children finish their day with another round of snacks and group sharing. Often they do not want to leave at the end of the session, pleading to have another round of activity.
An integral component of a successful and transformational program is ongoing professional development. Our team has been providing ample opportunities for professional growth through rigorous training for all monitors and support staff of the CFSs. The program allows time for monitors to work collaboratively to create activity plans for different age groups that involve psychosocial, educational, and creative activities. Monitors receive regular support as on-site trainers circulate throughout the camp sites to model best practices and do side-by-side coaching. They also receive weekly training on topics such as activity planning, positive discipline, self-care, safe touch, active listening, group norms, and play therapy. Our goal is to infuse the curriculum with loving and healing child-centered and experiential activities.
Hopefully, the children who participate in the AMURT CFSs will look back at these past months and remember experiences and feelings that were positive and filled with light and love, and perhaps the scars of the loss and struggles they faced will begin to heal. For more information on AMURT’s work in Haiti please visit www.amurthaiti.org.