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Working together to help Haiti's children

Haiti, February 11, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    (From left) Liliane Hollant and Griff Samples, Mercy Corps Comfort for Kids program; Haiti's First Lady Elisabeth Préval; Linda Mason, Mercy Corps Chair; Haitian Cultural Advisor Philippe Dodart. Photo: Mercy Corps

During the last part of my visit to Haiti I was fortunate to meet with Madame Elisabeth Delatour Préval, Haiti's First Lady. She and her husband, Haitian President René Préval, were just entering the Presidential Palace when the earthquake struck. They jumped back as a large part of the palace crumbled before their eyes. Their private home also collapsed.

Madame Préval spent the morning before our meeting moving into another house. She is a bright, charismatic, compassionate woman. She has gone on national radio several times since the earthquake to talk directly to the population of Haiti. She speaks of the resilient spirit of the Haitian people and their strong sense of community and helping one another.

The government offices have largely been destroyed, so the government is operating out of a police station near the airport. We met with the Madame Préval and her Cultural Advisor, Philippe Dodart, in the one small conference room in the police station. We talked about the great needs of Haiti's children.

Madame Préval wants to devote her efforts to helping children get through this crisis. We talked about our Comfort for Kids program and how we could collaborate together on behalf of children and parents in Port-au-Prince. We decided on a major collaboration throughout the tent encampments in Port-au-Prince.

The First Lady's office, Mercy Corps and UNICEF will create child spaces in the tent encampments. UNICEF will provide play, art therapy activities and counseling for the children. While the children are engaged in these activities, Mercy Corps will provide the Comfort for Kids counseling program for the parents. We will distribute Comfort Kits to the children.

It's a very important program for both the children and parents, and the collaboration is a wonderful way to work directly with the government of Haiti on its priorities for children and parents. We presented the First Lady with our first copy of "What Happened to Our World", our training manual, translated into Creole. She was very grateful.

I sat through one of our Comfort for Kids trainings, run by Griff Samples. I was able to see first hand how hungry parents were for this counseling and support. Parents are confused by much of the behavior they see in their children. They are also confused about their own reactions.

One teacher said she is plagued by guilt that she told children to stay in the classroom when the earthquake hit. Although they luckily escaped injury, she is full of self-recrimination that she did the exact wrong thing.

"They could have all been killed, and that would have been my fault. That is on my shoulders," she said.

She visibly relaxed when Griff explained that you can't judge your actions during the earthquake. No one had ever experienced anything like that before.

"You were actually trying to help the children. You did what you thought best. You shouldn't think otherwise," Griff told her.

After the two-hour training, many wanted more, and we found that many adults came back for the next training to hear the messages again.

The Comfort for Kids program was developed by Bright Horizons and Mercy Corps after the 9/11 attack. It has been effectively used in that crisis, after Hurricane Katrina, after the China earthquake, and now will be a central part of our recovery effort in Haiti. It will make an important difference in countless lives over the next many months.