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What "Back to School" will mean for kids in Haiti

Haiti, September 8, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Children at the school at Fondation Bon Samaritan in Cité Soleil, where Mercy Corps held a training in the Comfort for Kids program. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Ronel Saint Louis, 47, a teacher at the school at Fondation Bon Samaritan. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Repairing desks that were crushed during the earthquake at the Fondation Bon Samaritan school in Cite Soleil. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps

It's back to school for kids here in the U.S. but, for kids in Haiti, they have another month before the school year starts again. The January earthquake closed schools for several months, pushing the school year further into the summer than usual. To make up for lost days, summer vacations for kids in Haiti were a month shorter. Haitian kids feel the same as American kids about summer vacation. They weren't happy about missing out on that vacation!

For many kids who live in Port-au-Prince, summer is a time to visit family in the countryside. It's a time to take a break from the city and be refreshed by fun and play. It's been a tough year. Their lives in the city continue to be affected by the earthquake in profound ways. Rubble and wrecked buildings still make up the backdrop of their everyday activities. Some still live in tent camps.

Every child in Port-au-Prince experienced loss caused by the quake. Many lost a loved one, a parent, sister or brother, cousin or friend. Many lost their homes, their possessions. They lost their sense of safety and routine. Many children have parents who lost their jobs and struggle to pay for food or clothing or tuition for school. And most children have experienced more than just one of these losses.

The psychological affects of loss are tremendous for everyone who lived through the quake — especially for children. Mercy Corps continues to work in schools, churches and organizations across Port-au-Prince to help children recover emotionally and physically from the quake through our Comfort for Kids program.

In late July, I accompanied our Mercy Corps team on a Comfort for Kids training at a school in Cité Soleil — a neighborhood with the reputation of being one of the toughest slums in Port-au-Prince. Here, teachers faced a challenge that teachers across Port-au-Prince were coming up against: how to get kids literally back in the classroom.

Ronel Saint Louis, a teacher for 17 years, tells me that when they reopened the school in early April, he and his fellow teachers found that they couldn't just resume their regular lessons.

"There was a profound change in the reactions of kids," he says. "Kids who used to do really well in school now were not doing so well. Some were being more aggressive or having trouble paying attention." And they didn't want to go back inside the school building. The idea of the cement ceiling falling down on them was too traumatizing.

For many schools, teachers had no choice but to conduct classes outside on the playground or under tents — a very distracting learning environment — until children could feel comfortable inside. Louis says that activities that address the post-earthquake emotional needs of children — like those taught in Mercy Corps' Comfort for Kids program — have made a big difference at his school.

"When our school opened again we focused on giving kids ways to relax and de-stress. We took the time to really explain what an earthquake is." He adds, "These activities are a success. One of the cues that things are beginning to return to normal is just the fact the kids are back in the building. That's what has made this a successful school year."

Mercy Corps' psychologist Sandrine Kenol, who leads the Comfort for Kids program in Haiti, says that shortly after the earthquake, even she had hoped that by summer everything would be back to normal in Haiti. "And now I'm starting to accept that it's going to take a long time," she says. "I think a lot of people were discouraged at first at how long it will take to recover from this, but when you see the amount of work that has to be done, you have to accept that it's going to take a long time. And you do what you can."

For many Haitian kids this year, "back to school" will literally mean being back in the classroom, indoors and behind a desk. And hopefully, with continued psychological support from teachers and parents, the next school year will also bring them the sense of safety and wellbeing that they need to be students again — so they can resume their learning and development.