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A child's safe haven helps families cope

Philippines, January 13, 2014

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  • Merlyn Fuentes, 20, and her three young children stayed for weeks in the Catholic seminary-turned-evacuation center in Palo, Leyte, while her husband scavenged debris to build a temporary shelter after Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  • The roof was torn off the Catholic Cathedral where Merlyn, her family and hundreds of others sought shelter during Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  • While still uncertain about their future, Merlyn has peace of mind while she works to rebuild thanks to the Child Centered Spaces Mercy Corps worked with a partner to open in Palo. Her three-year-old daughter, Maria Antoinette (in purple) has a safe place to play and recover, and the teams also helped get medical care for baby Mark Anthony. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Merlyn Fuentes and her family can’t go home again. For weeks after Typhoon Haiyan ripped through their town of Palo, in Leyte province, the 20-year-old mother and her three young children stayed at the Catholic seminary-turned-evacuation center while her husband searched through debris looking for materials to build a shelter.

Merlyn refused to let the children see their old neighborhood and site of their home, after she visited herself and experienced the stench of death that hung over the neighborhood and people wandering the broken streets, dazed by the magnitude of what had happened.

“It was almost unbearable the first couple weeks,” said Merlyn. “My children couldn’t understand what had happened and why we couldn’t go home, and I didn’t know how to explain it to them.”

Helping their children through the fear and uncertainty wrought by the typhoon has been one of the hardest things for parents to deal with, as they also struggled to find food and rebuild a safe place to live.

That’s why Mercy Corps and our partner organization set-up two Child Centered Spaces as part of our emergency response program in Palo. The teams distributed food as well as hygiene kits and cooking items to families to help meet their basic daily needs.

“I couldn’t feed my family without this assistance,” said Merlyn. The family has been surviving on donations and relief distributions. Her husband is a fisherman and made less than $2 per day before the typhoon. Since the typhoon he has not been able to fish as he has been trying to build a shelter for the family to live in.

The Child Centered Spaces, meanwhile, give parents the peace of mind that their children are safe while they have to be at distribution points to collect food or work on rebuilding homes.

SEE PHOTOS: Addressing children's needs during relief efforts

“I know I can leave my daughter, Maria Antoinette, at the center for a couple hours a day and she will be safe and cared for, and have the opportunity to play and get away from the difficult life in the evacuation center,” Merlyn explained.

The Spaces offer program activities like games and sports, as well as one-on-one counseling to help traumatized children process their emotional response to the disaster and encourage healthy self-expression and openness.

By coordinating with other relief organizations in the area, the team also works to ensure that vulnerable families and children are getting the assistance they need. When Merlyn’s three-month-old baby, Mark Anthony, fell sick and was vomiting, the Child Center team referred Merlyn to a medical aid organization to ensure he was treated immediately.

The ultimate goal is to protect children’s rights and respond to their immediate needs in the tumultuous aftermath of disaster. The way we can tell it’s working is simple as hearing Merlyn say, “My daughter has been frightened and confused since the typhoon, but after she went to the center she came home smiling. It was the first time I‘ve seen her smile since the typhoon.”

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