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Lessons from the deluge

© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Maitem
Students of Consolacion Elementary School, one of the worst hit schools in Cagayan de Oro City, receive their school packs to help continue their education.

Teachers bounce back to help children deal with the floods

By Marge Francia

Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines, 3 January 2012— In City Central School, Cagayan de Oro City, an old classroom becomes quiet witness to two teachers’ incredible strength of spirit. Teachers Vivian Benedictos and Marilou Gambuta today held their first day of class since the devastating floods swept through their community, even as their own future looks uncertain.


Vivian and Marilou are co-teachers and best friends. They share a classroom for the morning and afternoon classes of first-graders, and are charged with its upkeep. They never thought that they would be sharing this room to not only teach in, but to live in.


When Tropical Storm Sendong swept through the city on December 16, it unleashed a deluge that wiped out whole communities, including Vivian’s and Marilou’s.  The floods completely destroyed both their houses. By through sheer determination to survive, they managed to escape within seconds of being swept away.


 “I could hear that the water was already behind us. I didn’t want to look back because I knew I wouldn’t find my house there anymore. I covered my ears because I could hear my neighbors screaming for help,” Marilou’s eyes start welling up in tears.

Vivian Benedictos and Marilou Gambuta, teachers at City Central Elementary School, are only two of the 850 teachers affected by the recent flooding in the Southern Philippines. ©UNICEF Philippines/2012/Francia

An important call
As soon as her family was out of harm’s way, she managed to call Vivian and warn her that the water is rising rapidly, and that she had to escape before the flood waters descended on her town.
“When I heard from Marilou I started to panic and shout. I told people, let’s go, but my neighbors didn’t believe me. The water started to rise and I got out of the house. My sister and my children stayed on the second floor thinking they would be safe there, so I had to go back and get them. By the time we left the house, the water was already chest-deep,” she recalls with fear.


When they reached high ground, Vivian called Marilou back. She pleaded with her best friend’s husband, Geraldo, to fetch them. All around, the water was steadily rising. Eventually the two best friends were reunited in their safe haven, the same classroom they teach in. It has been their home ever since.


A blow to children’s education
Others were not so lucky. The tragedy has caused the death of five teachers. Three are still missing. Of the 850 affected teachers, 41 of them are now without homes. Around 50 schools are either completely or partially destroyed, flooded or are being used as evacuation centers. Students whose classrooms are still being used by families displaced by the flood have had to use basketball courts or municipal halls to hold their classes.


Today, even as the two teachers have barely recovered from their massive loss, they begin their first day of class since the deluge. Blankets and pillows are piled on top of cabinets holding books and learning materials. A small corner with a stove serves as a kitchen while outside, the hall is filled with water containers.


Marilou’s eyes are still red from tears. She just learned that two of her students are still missing. Despite that, she says she is ready to go back to teaching.
“I was able to hold class today but it was very hard. Some of my students are still in shock. I wanted to cry while they were telling me their stories about the flood, but I had to be strong. Adults like me can recover, but with children, it’s extra hard for them. Going back to school would be good for them,” she says.

Vivian Benedictos with student Gia Bitua, an honor student who was one of those affected by the flooding. “I immediately grabbed my school bag as we were escaping because I didn’t want my things to get wet.” Gia was able to save five notebooks, her pad paper and pencils. ©UNICEF Philippines/2012/Francia


Healing, together
To help teachers and students who were affected by the flood, the Department of Education, UNICEF and other education partners are joining hands in ensuring that they are ready, physically and emotionally, to go back to class. UNICEF is providing 7,000 student kits and 850 teachers’ packs with school supplies, together with tents that will serve as temporary classrooms. Volunteers for psychosocial activities in schools and evacuation centers are now being trained to support for the school children.


“In an emergency, the school acts as a lifeline for children. That is why UNICEF helps to quickly reopen schools and replace children’s school supplies.  We believe getting children back in school is an important step in regaining normalcy in their lives,” Ma. Lourdes de Vera-Mateo, UNICEF Philippines’ Education Chief says.


Restoring education after an emergency not only meets the fundamental right of children to education but also helps children overcome the psychological impact of disasters. After a crisis, schools can act as safe spaces and restore the rhythm of children’s daily lives. Schools also provide a protective environment for children who become more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In the long term, continued education can promote social cohesion and contribute to the social and economic stability of the flood-affected areas. 

While Vivian and Marilou are still without a home, they remain as committed to teaching as their students are to learning.


“I’m happy that my students are eager to go back to school, and some are even worried that they have lost their books in the flood. Children need to heal properly, and we as teachers need to help them through it,” Marilou says.

 

 
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