Helping children in typhoon-hit central Philippines recover through art and play

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 24 January 2014 06:50 GMT

Letters written by 8-year-old third graders at Kiling Elementary School in Tanauan, responding to letters of encouragement from fellow students in other parts of the Philippines. Tanauan was badly hit by Typhoon Haiyan, with the combination of strong winds and a storm surge killing more than 1,200 people. Photo taken on Jan. 22, 2014. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Thin Lei Win

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With many of the nearly 6 million children affected by super storm Haiyan having lost friends and family, aid agencies turn to games, song and art to help them move beyond the trauma

TANAUAN, Philippines (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A child’s hand had written a message on a small pink piece of paper.

“We pray to God that our people, especially those that were victimised by Yolanda, will be given the strength to go on,” it said.

“Give us the wisdom that despite the challenges we will not lose hope… Pray for the people of Leyte, Samar and Tacloban to be able to withstand the challenges.”

Another note is even shorter: “Thank you for writing to us. We are having a hard time here in Leyte. Thank you for helping.”

These messages were written by 8-year-old students, responding to letters of encouragement from fellow students in other parts of the Philippines. They give insight into the worries and fears plaguing the young survivors of super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms on record to ever hit land.

Known locally as Yolanda, the typhoon made landfall on Nov. 8, devastating a large area of the central Philippines, leaving close to 8,000 people dead or missing and millions others homeless and jobless.

Many children lost their parents, siblings and friends. Of the more than 14 million people affected by the typhoon, nearly 6 million are children, according to UNICEF.

The stress and trauma caused by natural disasters tend to become apparent when survivors return to some form of normal routine, and with children is often best pinpointed through activities, said Angelo Leo, a mental health specialist with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

“Kids are less able to articulate or talk about their feelings, so we do art therapy, play therapy and violence prevention education. Through those things we can see what’s going on,” he said.


The exchange of letters and drawings are part of a programme by the Philippines Red Cross (PRC) and IFRC to provide psychosocial support to young students in some of the hardest-hit areas.

The young survivors’ responses offer hints to their state of mind. Those who show signs of trauma are referred to teachers and trauma counselors to receive long-term support.

The letters also serve to lift the students’ spirits.

“People want to know that other people care about them,” Leo said.

On Wednesday, the Red Cross team visited Kiling Elementary School in Tanauan, a town in Leyte province flattened by winds and a storm surge. More than 1,200 people died here.

The 8-year-old third graders are in a temporary classroom with a tarpaulin for a roof. Their old classroom, painted bright pink, remains a wreck of fallen beams and broken windows.

Schools reopened a couple of weeks ago. Some children show clear psychological scars from the typhoon.

“When it’s dark and there’s wind and rain, (the children) gets scared even if there’s no storm,” said Imelda Morano, a teacher at the school.


During the two- to four-hour school programmes with the Red Cross, the children express themselves through games, songs and art.

Young volunteers like Janine Francis Louise E. Alcober whip up the 100-odd students at Kiling into a frenzy of laughter and song.

At one point, Alcober asks the 8-year-olds to guess what’s inside a small box, saying it is “the most treasured thing in the world”. Shouts of necklace, money, happiness and Jesus turn out to be wrong. The children collapse in giggles when they see their own reflection in a mirror inside the box.

Alcober, at 17, is the youngest of 28 volunteers in the programme. The nursing student who also survived the storm moved to Tacloban from a nearby Haiyan-hit town two months ago to offer her time to the Red Cross.

“My school started last week but I plan to transfer to another one in Tacloban so I can be near the Red Cross and continue to help,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I’ll be going back to school on Monday, but on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I can still do this.”

She describes her first volunteer visit to the school, which moved her deeply: One student drew a painting of a crushed house.

“She was crying because she had lost her mother, father and older brother,” Alcober said.

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