Nurturing children’s creativity in trying times
By Friena Guerrero
They are in school, but they can't attend classes.
The flood waters that still inundate much of the Philippines' capital have become black with human waste and garbage, which seem to reflect the fear and hopelessness that many felt when tropical storm Ondoy struck the country on September 26, 2009.
"We felt it was hopeless," said Jennifer Cortel, who lives in a classroom with her six children, along with eight other families. "The water rose so quickly, but I knew I had to be brave for the children." Family members and neighbours helped Jennifer carry her children, aged 12 months to 11 years old, to safety in waist-high waters and biting rain.
Jennifer's family is among 116 families who were evacuated to classrooms on three floors of the Liberato Damian Elementary School in Barangay Sta. Cruz, Pasig City. The city, in the eastern part of the metropolis, was among the worst hit by the killer floods. Many of the barangay's residents fought their way through rising waters and strong currents to the upper floors of the five storey building, and have been unable to return to their homes, which they left as quickly as the waters rose.
"From the point of view of children, what they need is normalcy. We need to ensure that they have creative experiences. That's their world. Without it, their world crumbles."
At the school, potted plants and chairs divide the hallways into the operational classrooms and those housing evacuees. In the hallways, children and babies sleep on sacks and cardboard while their mothers boil rice on pots and pans that their husbands were able to salvage from their homes. From the balcony, they watch as trash floats in the black shin-deep water. The rooms, which would normally seat 20 to 30 students, now house up to 14 families each. Almost every room has two or more infants. Many school-age children sit listlessly, waiting for the hours to pass and looking nervously at the sky whenever the clouds begin to rumble.
The government ordered the resumption of classes a week after tropical storm Ondoy hit, but life is anything but back to normal, especially as many schools have been converted into evacuation centres.
Jennifer's son, 8-year-old RJ Carl Ashley, sat crying softly on the cold concrete floor of Room 19 on the fourth floor because he wanted to attend classes. A Grade 3 student at the school where he has been living for almost two weeks, RJ, like many other children in more than 500 evacuation centres throughout the capital, escaped the floods with only the drenched clothes on their backs.
"All his clothes were destroyed. His uniform is gone and his bag and notebooks are covered with mud," Jennifer said. She has offered to do the laundry of fellow evacuees in order to pay for just a few notebooks and pencils so that RJ and the rest of her children can study again. This means having to brave the brackish water to a barangay hall around the corner to fill a pail with clean water, and then making the trip back.
Jaime de Venecia, a sixth grader at Liberato Damian, fled to the school on Saturday morning with his parents and three siblings. His dream is to graduate from school and get a good job so that he can help his parents. He spends the days anxiously waiting for the waters to recede.
"When the flood waters go down, I really want to go back to school already but I can't also go back because I don't have school things and clothes which we were unable to save in the rush to save ourselves from the onrushing flood waters."
Tropical storm Ondoy's aftermath ushered in a great wave of volunteerism and goodwill toward those affected by the deadly storm. However, while most efforts have understandably gone toward filling the immediate and material needs of affected families such as food, shelter and clothing, the specific needs of children must also be met.
"In times of emergencies, concerns of children are not given enough prominence," said UNICEF Education Chief Ma. Lourdes de Vera. "From the point of view of children, what they need is normalcy. We need to ensure that they have creative experiences. That's their world. Without it, their world crumbles."
Although classes have resumed, teachers and school officials fear that it will take some time before any sense of normalcy can return. On the first day back, teacher Melorine Gallardo, who handles preschool and Grade 2, said none of her students were able to attend. On the second day, two students managed to come to school. In addition, many teachers were also affected by the floods and some have become evacuees themselves.
Principal Arsenia Soriano said that overall, only about 7 to 10% of the school's 1600 student population have been able to go back to school. Although they are a safe refuge for many evacuees, many school buildings were also damaged in the storm and several remain flooded. In Pasig alone, 34 out of the city's 40 schools were affected by tropical storm Ondoy, with 21 serving as evacuation centres. At the Liberato Damian Elementary School, nine classrooms were devastated and hundreds of books and basic school supplies such as chalk, were destroyed. School officials estimate that it may take months before things get back to normal.
"We know school performance will go down whether we like it or not," said Ms. Soriano. "Many of the students come from poor families and we're afraid they might stop coming because they can't afford to anymore."
While the streets remain flooded, even children who were not displaced by the storm are struggling to resume their studies. Many now have to pay 20 to 60 pesos for one trip on makeshift boats just to travel the few hundred metres from their homes to the school – precious funds that many of the daily wage-earning families must also set aside for food.
However, damage to infrastructure and roads can be rebuilt. The effects of the psychosocial distress that Tropical Storm Ondoy has caused for children can also be repaired, but only if children are able to participate in appropriate activities that promote their natural resilience and give them the opportunity to processes their experiences and overcome their fears. Aside from losing their homes, belongings and even nearly their lives, the first sounds of raindrops falling on tin roofs now trigger fear and panic in many children and regaining a sense of normalcy does not mean sweeping the memories of the past events under a rug.
In line with its advocacy of a more comprehensive disaster response, UNICEF has not only replaced damaged school supplies but is also addressing the psychosocial needs of child victims of storm Ondoy. Aside from distributing early child care and development (ECCD) packages consisting of books, toys and other learning materials to affected schools and evacuation centres, UNICEF is also supporting community and other volunteers to provide psychosocial support activities for children, through structured play and creative expression such as art, song and theatre. UNICEF is also supporting the creation of child friendly spaces, so that affected children have a safe space where they can participate in such activities with the support of their communities.
Despite their ordeals, Ondoy has not dampened people's wills to survive or the children's resilience. By continuing to nurture the children's creativity and valuing their education even in the most extraordinary circumstances, they will realize that when the waters finally clear, their dreams have not been washed away and that they can weather any storm.