December 4 2013

Delivering fun in the Philippines

Maria’s face lights up as other children shout out “SOS, SOS”. She runs to greet the team of volunteers from SOS Children’s Villages who have just arrived with relief aid. The children and their parents know that the aid they bring is like no other. It has an immediate and long-lasting effect.

Maria is always overjoyed to see the volunteers © T. Standún
The theoretical objective is to help hundreds of children across Tacloban overcome trauma. A physical indicator of success is a smiling face.
In their distinctive orange t-shirts the team of three teachers carry boxes of games and toys to a corner of Tacloban’s People’s Centre. They pass a grand piano that stands in front of a majestic theatre curtain hanging 20 metres tall. The cultural centre, dedicated by the former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos to the people of her home city is now witnessing drama that is tragic.

The value of playing and laughing is higher now than at any other time ©T. Standún
Setting the stage for families
Approximately 100 families rendered homeless by Typhoon Haiyan have been forced to take shelter in the theatre’s balcony which houses a library of beautifully arranged classic books. Reading is not possible as natural light is sparse. Each family’s living area is identified by basic cardboard partitions. There is no place for privacy, no running water, no electricity. The local authority and aid agencies provide food and basic supplies. Two portable toilets are available nearby on the busy public street. Far from feelings of self-pity or anger, the people here treat their surroundings and visitors with reverence. With a welcoming smile, “thank you for coming,” is the common mantra heard by the SOS Children’s Villages emergency team.
As the newly arrived trio lead the assembled children in song and games, parents look on. Over a number of days they discover that the concept of a child-friendly space is a form of aid that is unique. It transforms trauma into something that is positive and even beautiful.   

Considering what she has been through, seein Maria like this is nothing short of miraculous © T. Standún
Behind the fun is a professional support structure
Today in a corner of the library, Maria enjoys a heart-filled laugh with Beth, as the SOS volunteer brings the story of Beauty and the Beast to life. “Maria was a very different child when I first met with her,” says Maridel Inoc. The SOS Children’s Villages Social Worker describes why Typhoon Haiyan will remain etched forever in the mind of the eight-year-old. “Three massive waves hit her home. She managed to hold on after the first one. The second wave swept her off her feet, but she managed to swim back. Just as she caught her breath she was again swept away. This time the wave carried her to the first floor of the house; here she held on a concrete column. Miraculously, her physical injuries were relatively minor, but there is pain of a different kind.”
Providing professional psychological support to such children involves getting them to recount their experience. Hearing Maria relay the rest of her story was an emotional challenge for both parties. The crying child described how she desperately hung on to save her own life. While she looked around at the devastation surrounding her she observed how a mango tree nearby withstood the force of the water. On that tree was her mother – it was immediately clear to the eight-year-old that she did not survive. The body of her 10-month-old nephew has not been found. The baby’s teenage mother suffers from asthma as she grieves for her son.  Before the typhoon another teenage sister left home to live elsewhere in the city. Her whereabouts were unknown for some time – adding to the grief and anguish suffered by Maria, her father, her surviving three brothers and older sister.
The child-friendly space provided by SOS Children’s Villages at the Peoples Centre in Tacloban is similar to several others provided by the organisation across the city. Behind the simple structures where fun is delivered to hundreds of children, much more serious work is in progress. As children attend child-friendly spaces the team looks for tell-tale signs to quickly identify children and families in need of specific support. In Maria’s case additional psychosocial, health and employment support is being arranged to ensure that she, her asthmatic sister and her father can overcome the challenges that lie ahead. Fortunately, she now has double reason to smile as she has learned that her runaway sister has turned up safe and well.