La Trinidad, Benguet province, January 2010 – ‘I’m so excited. I’m so excited. I’m so excited.’ Harry, 10, is lying in bed in the dormitory at Benguet State University (BSU) campus. He gets up and goes to the window to check if its day yet, but Father Geraldo Costa, the founder of the Sunflower Children’s Centre, tells him its only 3 am and that he has to wait for another three hours before he can get up. Harry gets back into bed, but he is still mumbling ‘I’m so excited. I’m so excited. I’m so excited.’
The previous day, Harry and 84 other children from Sto Nino Elementary and pre-school arrived at BSU to take part in a two day resiliency camp organised by the Sunflower Children’s Centre, a long time UNICEF Philippines partner. Two colourful tents are set up on a large field at the university campus and the children run around exploring the area. This is a world away from their home village; Sto Nino was devastated by landslides following Typhoon Pepeng (international name Parma), which hit the region in October last year killing 492 people and affecting over four million others. Almost all the children who are here to participate were evacuated and spent two months in tents at a relocation site in the neighbouring village. Now they are back in their community, but the devastation from the landslides is all around them and a constant reminder of the day they had to flee from their homes.
From years of experience in emergencies, UNICEF knows that nearly all children and adolescents who have experienced catastrophic situations will initially display symptoms of psychological distress, including intrusive flashbacks of the stress event, nightmares, withdrawal and inability to concentrate. Child development professionals consider that the key element in promoting the child’s recovery is building resilience as well as meeting basic needs. The main objective with this camp is therefore to explore and strengthen the children’s resiliencies and to have fun in a safe and relaxing environment.
‘Welcome to the resiliency camp.’ Farida from the Sunflower Centre greets the children. ‘We have eight activities for you and our first activity will be the Magic Box.’ The children are quickly organised into groups and the facilitators explain what the Magic Box is.
‘The Magic box will be with you all through the camp. It is a resiliency box and you can decorate it just the way you want.’ CJ, a long term volunteer explains his group of 4th graders. ‘After each activity you will write a message to yourself to put in the box and at the end of the camp you can take the box home with you so you can read the messages anytime you like.’ The children eagerly start to decorate their box with glitter and colourful papers, and after two hours 85 Magic boxes are ready for their messages.
Alex with his magic box.
‘My face is pretty.’ Steff, 10, says while she is looking in a mirror. The children are drawing their faces on paper plates, an activity that aims to get the children to talk about their physical features and to learn to love these traits. ‘I have black eyes.’ Alex, 10, says while cutting out circles from a black sheet of paper. ‘I think I am handsome.’ He picks up the mirror and takes a closer look at his nose.
‘Children need to know it is alright for them to feel good about themselves and their features.’ CJ explains. ‘We ask them which positive words or traits they see in themselves and why they think those traits are important. Then we tell them the importance of such positive traits.’ The next step is for the children to write positive things about each other on a piece of paper attached to their back and to come up with messages for their Magic Box. Bejitan, 9, writes: ‘I am intelligent Kelvin says and I am a beautiful boy.’ He then puts the message in the box.
During the day the children and the team participate in three more activities. All of them focused on strengthening a particular resiliency factor that a child may find within themselves or in their outside environment.
Together we are strong
There is also time for play during the two days the children are together. They run around chasing each other and there is laughter in the air. ‘The mood is very different from when we last met these children.’ Father Costa says. ‘Now they are laughing and their drawings are full of sunshine and beautiful colours. Last time we met them they were drawing rain and dark clouds and some of the children had to sit under the table to be able to speak about what had happen. It is fantastic to see how this has changed.’
The children are still sharing their stories from the evacuation, but the focus of this activity is on the bond between them and the people they care about. A thread of yarn is being passed around and each child holds on to a piece of it while speaking of a person close to them whom they can turn to if they need help. ‘My cousin Joella helps me the most.’ Gina, 11, says when CJ passes her the thread of yarn. ‘She is always there when I need help with my assignments.’ Theodore, 11, would ask help from Jasper; ‘He is an old man who lives in our village,’ he says. ‘And if something happens he can inform the authorities.’
All the children identify persons they can turn to in need and in the end the yarn has spun a web between them. ‘It is so beautiful.’ Alex says. ‘It is like a star.’ Then Ms Koni, their guardian asks them all to let go of the yarn and it falls to the ground. ‘Now what happens?’ she says. ‘It is all destroyed.’ The children reply. ‘Yes, and this means that we need to hold on to it together, as together we are strong and can help each other.’ The children nod in agreement.
Messages of hope
The second day goes by too quickly and soon it is time for the last activity. The children have been running around after lunch and the facilitators are now gathering them for one last message, a message to God.
Religious faith and spirituality plays a big role in the lives of most Filipinos, and they give praise to God during good times and they ask for his grace and mercy in difficult times. The children are given small colourful notes where they can write their own message to God.
The Children send off their messages of hope for the future.
‘Thank you lord for all you blessings,’ the note from Jonjie, 12, reads. ‘I pray that I will not become a bad child and I will do my best in my studies and I will become a good child.’
Raven, 12, has a wish for his community; ‘I pray that our place will become beautiful again and that we all will become happy again.’ So does Jimbert, 12, who wish for all of the children to be safe when they go back home. And Janrey, 11, wishes that: ‘I will grow up happy so that I could make others happy the way all of you made us happy today.’
The messages are diverse and beautiful, just like the children and they all reflect hope for the future and for Sto Nino. In a symbolic ceremony the messages are tied to the string of helium balloons and on the count of three the balloons are let go, taking the messages of hope from the Sto Nino children with them. When asked what their favourite activity was, the children all agreed that the best thing was just to be together and their final wish was to do it again some day.
The Sunflower Children’s Centre in Baguio city in the Cordillera region is a psychotherapeutic centre for children in distress as well as a training centre for psychosocial practitioners. They have been a UNICEF partner since 2003 and have conducted psycho social activities for children affected by Typhoon Pepeng in several areas of the Cordillera region.
Written by Silje Vik Pedersen, Emergency Communication Officer
All photos by Kat Palasi