Pia’s story: Being a Youth Animator helped us recover from Super Typhoon Odette

UNICEF and partners work with youth volunteers on mental health and psychosocial support for children affected by the typhoon.

Micaela Papa
A volunteer facilitates a play activity at a Child Friendly Space
UNICEF Philippines/2022/Ysa Cascante
13 April 2022

At 3:00 am on 16 December 2021, Pia Roculas went to church for the first day of Simbang Gabi. It’s a Filipino holiday tradition to complete the nine days of early morning mass all the way until Christmas.

This time, however, the 17-year-old had something different to pray for. Super Typhoon Odette (international Name: Rai) was about to hit their seaside village of San Benito that very morning.

Pia’s family made it home from church before the rain and wind picked up at 7:00 am. By noon, their roof was gone and the deluge destroyed the first level of their home. Pia, along with her grandparents and cousin, had to flee.

Pia, a volunteer Youth Animator at the Child Friendly Space in San Benito
UNICEF Philippines/2022/Arby Larano
Pia, a volunteer Youth Animator at the Child Friendly Space in San Benito

“My grandmother already had difficulty walking, and I had to help her duck and avoid the debris. I saw babies in their carriages drenched to the bone, people who had rushed to the church in despair,” Pia recalled.

By the time the clouds cleared the next day, everyone in San Benito had survived the worst typhoon ever to hit Siargao Island – but their troubles weren’t over.

“People started walking back to their homes, but there was no home. It had all been destroyed,” she recalled.

A classroom in San Benito Elementary School after Super Typhoon Odette
UNICEF Philippines/2022/Ysa Cascante
A classroom in San Benito Elementary School after Super Typhoon Odette

As in other difficult moments in her life, Pia leaned on her cousin who she grew up with and calls ate (older sister) – for strength.

“Having an ate is like having a human diary,” Pia remarked. “I can share with her my experiences, the hurt I go through. She always encourages me. She’s my number one fan.”

But Pia saw that not every child in their village had an ate to lean on after the typhoon. This inspired Pia to volunteer as a Youth Animator.

Child Friendly Space

A few days a week, Pia picks up children from their homes and brings them to the UNICEF tent set up in the middle of San Benito Elementary School.

Festooned with bunting and colorful toys, the facility serves as a Child Friendly Space, a venue where Youth Animators like Pia lead children in musical, play and sports activities. 

A Youth Animator facilitates a drawing activity at the San Benito Child Friendly Space
UNICEF Philippines/2022/Ysa Cascante
A Youth Animator facilitates a drawing activity at a UNICEF-supported Child Friendly Space

“Because playgrounds, schools, and even their own homes were wiped out, these kids have no areas where they can just play. This is a safe haven for them,” says France Donoso, a Field Assistant from Community and Family Services Inc., UNICEF’s implementing partner.

More than just fun and games, Child Friendly Spaces aim to meet the unique psychosocial needs of children who may not respond to traditional therapy after a traumatic event.

Children drawing their "happy place" during a CFS activity
UNICEF Philippines/2022/Ysa Cascante
Children participate in a Child Friendly Space activity where they draw their "happy place".

“It’s very important for Youth Animators like Pia to come from the target community itself,” adds France. “They are familiar with the people, they have experienced the same struggles. They know what the children need.”

One of the children taking part is 11-year-old Ayesha Brenica Tubo – the eldest of three siblings who have sheltered at Pia’s house after the typhoon. Normally the one taking care of others, Ayesha says it’s a nice change to have an ate.

“Ate Pia is very helpful, cheerful, and she brought me to this tent. I used to be alone, but now I’ve made friends,” she said.

11 year old Ayesha (near the background in red) participates in an activity at the CFS
UNICEF Philippines/2022/Ysa Cascante
Ayesha Tubo (near the background in the red t-shirt) participates in a supervised activity held at a UNICEF-supported Child Friendly Space;

According to Pia, helping the children has also helped her come to terms with her own trauma.

“You can tell they’re still afraid. They would say ‘Ate Pia, I don’t like the rain, I don’t like the wind.’ I’m afraid as well, but being their ate, I try to explain to them that this is part of life. I would tell them ‘I like the rain. It gives us water we drink to survive. The wind gives us the air we need to breathe.' ”

"The change in them is amazing. Despite all the hardships they’ve been through, they’re now more confident and brave,” Pia says 

You can help us reach more children and families affected by Typhoon Odette. Donate at bit.ly/UNICEFEmergencies