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Returning to happiness on Anguilla: reflections…

Shelly-Ann Harper, ECD Specialist, hanging out with Anguillan children

By Shelly-Ann Harper

Yes we’re Strong / Stronger than you ever will / Irma you pushed us hard / But we’re Caribbean Strong / Our souls enduring still.

All not lost / We’ve got life will be our mantra till / Not all hope is lost / Cause we’re Anguilla strong / God’s spirit lives within.

ANGUILLA- 13 October 2017 – As Omari Banks, the Anguillan musician and former West Indies cricketer, performed his song for a rapt audience at a UNICEF-supported “Return to Happiness” session for children, we all recognised the truth of the words that we learnt and sang with such heart. In pulling together and coping after the devastation wrought be Irma and Maria, we really are “Caribbean Strong”.

This song captures the spirit of all that I saw and experienced during my week in Anguilla, post-Irma. Banks’s performance was the highlight of the “Return to Happiness” programme which ran over a four-day period.

The Pure Anguilla Foundation hosted a Children’s Camp in collaboration with the Government of Anguilla and UNICEF during which the “Return to Happiness” sessions took place. This innovative intervention is designed to support the psychosocial recovery of children and adolescents who have experienced emotional trauma after emergencies or disasters. 

Sharing thoughts and feelings

In the run-up to the event, national partners agreed that before the official start of the new school term it was critical to gather the children together in a safe place where they could relax, have fun, play and engage in artistic and recreational activities. It was also vital for them to have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about Hurricane Irma.

Our call to the community for volunteers to take part in the “Return to Happiness” roll-out was met with a high level of interest and 30 people,  including social workers, school counsellors, youth leaders and teachers were trained by facilitators, Angelina Carty and Susan Hodge.

Getting them out of the house 

Families responded to the notification of the Children’s Camp and “Return to Happiness” programme with enthusiasm, saying how happy they were that the children could “get out of the house” and have “something enjoyable to do”.  The programme was running at two sites and as the word spread the numbers of children increased each day.

Many arrived filled with boisterous energy, others were more quiet and reserved. Tiara, an eight year old with autism was visibly overwhelmed and cried on the first day. One of the teenage volunteers, Rhonica Connor, took wonderful care of Tiara, giving her warm individual attention. By the third day the little girl was eager to join in and seemed to enjoy spending her day with us.

The children were just happy to see their old friends and make new ones. They embraced the opportunity to draw and colour, cut and stick, sing and recite, and create poems and songs. They liked the snacks and the delicious hot lunches which were provided by Josephine Gumbs-Connor and the partners of the Pure Anguilla Foundation.

“A monster”

The children spoke vividly about Hurricane Irma, describing her as “a monster” and talked of the fierceness of the howling wind, trees bending and breaking, things crashing and banging, shutters being ripped off and glass breaking as windows and doors burst open.  Some expressed feelings of terror, whilst others said they were brave enough to read to little sisters and brothers to keep them calm. Some slept through the entire thing. 

By the end of the week approximately 600 children between the ages of 4 and 12 had participated in the programme, with older teenagers doing an excellent job assisting as volunteers. Whilst we had to adapt the “Return to Happiness” programme to accommodate the large number of children who came, I am confident that it represented a good start in allowing them a space to be children: free to play, share and have fun together.

Tears and laughter

Amid the disbelief, frustration, tears and laughter, the communities in Anguilla have taken a hands on approach to get systems and services up and running as soon as possible.  At every turn I saw people cutting and pruning broken tree limbs and branches, clearing debris from properties, removing poles, disentangling powerlines and cleaning. The resilience of the young people and the adults I met on Anguilla, determined to restore quality to their lives after Irma and Maria ripped so many things apart, left me feeling both humbled and deeply grateful to everyone who has been contributing to the rebuilding efforts.

The “Return to Happiness” week was exciting, hectic and at times frenzied but I am confident that the children were indeed happy and we all took away something special from the experience. Caribbean Strong, Anguilla Strong!

Shelly-Ann Harper is the ECD Specialist in the UNICEF Officer for the Eastern Caribbean Area.



UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.



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