By Barbara Tai in Sichuan
Haohao’s grandfather used to fetch him from school every day – until he suddenly died of a heart attack.
The loss left the once vivacious seven-year-old a changed person. It wasn’t until a retired teacher who’s become a Red Cross psychosocial volunteer witnessed his grief and together with a classmate, sought ways to comfort him, that he was able to begin the process of coming to terms with it.
“I asked him one day, ‘who is going to pick you up?’ and he said: ‘no-one, I’m going home by myself,’ and started weeping. I didn’t know his grandpa had died three days ago,” said former teacher Mrs. Li, who’s now working in a day care centre.
Mrs. Li and another classmate, Bobo accompanied him home for a month. “Then Haohao and Bobo became best friends and Bobo, who used to be very withdrawn, became very active and started learning how to take care of others and to make friends.”
This story was among the many which emerged in a recent summing-up meeting, looking at the results of two years of psychosocial programming, supported by the Red Cross Society of China, in ten schools in Sichuan province.
The programme was set up to help children come to terms with the emotional aftermath of the May 2008 earthquake, in which nearly 80,000 people died.
But it has planted the seeds of something which is capable of being applied to considerably wider uses. This includes addressing the needs of ‘left behind children’ such as Haohao. Tens of millions of children are left at home, usually in the care of grandparents, while their parents travel away from home to make a living as migrant workers.
There are also a number of other stories which show that the psychosocial toolkit and approach has uses well beyond the earthquake aftermath.
One teacher from the Sichuan city of Deyang, He Min, shared a story about a 13-year-old boy, who was repeatedly subjected to physical violence by his father. “As a result, he became socially isolated from his classmates.”
Ms He said:“I tried to use the physchosocial tool kit – lots of games and small activities like drawing after class - and then started to talk to him about what he was feeling. I encouraged other students to come and join him and also to be more accepting.”
“I also used a hypothetical story about a boy named A, who was quiet and socially isolated and asked how the others would help him. They immediately came back with helpful responses and were then able to put these responses into play in the actual case of this boy.”
Another student whom Ms. He encountered, a 12-year-old girl, had been traumatised by an accident when she was six, in which she nearly drowned. “She always zipped her coat up right to her chin, even in summer as a form of protective behaviour – even though in summer it made her vulnerable to heat stroke – and she rarely talked to others.” But thanks to individual and group counselling over a period of three years, the young girl’s post-traumatic symptoms have disappeared and she is much more outgoing.
Some of the cases recounted are still linked to the earthquake, such as a little girl from Nanchong, who lost her parents in the disaster. “She became very withdrawn and completely unwilling to talk to her classmates. But by using drama and other activitities from the Red Cross toolkit, we gradually helped her to reconnect, ” said her teacher.
Pursuing psychosocial support in this setting is not without its challenges. For many teachers without an academic background in psychology, it is a steep learning curve and sometimes the students’ reactions to their interventions can take an unexpected and unpredictable turn.
But there is an undeniable a sense of momentum in the programme and a realisation that the toolkit developed by the Red Cross Society of China, with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), is a useful asset. Many of the volunteers expressed a determination to carry on the work – even though the post-disaster period of IFRC funding has come to a close – and confidence that they could find other sources of sustainable funding locally.
Nearly four years on from the Sichuan earthquake, the seeds planted by the psychosocial support programme are clearly bearing fruit and show every sign of continuing to do so.