Ten years after helping New York City's children, Mercy Corps brings "Comfort for Kids" to disaster zones around the world

China, United States, Haiti, Japan, Libya, September 8, 2011

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Aid agency and partners created Comfort for Kids in the weeks after 9/11

PORTLAND, Ore. – Ten years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a program first developed to heal the emotional wounds of children in New York City has been used to help kids around the world. Comfort for Kids, a methodology that promotes resilience in children traumatized by massive disasters, was created in the days after 9/11 by Mercy Corps, the Boston-based leader in employer-sponsored child care and early education Bright Horizons Family Solutions®, and the global financial services firm JP Morgan Chase & Co.

In the days after 9/11, Comfort for Kids was conceptualized to help the children of New York City who witnessed – either in person or through countless media images – the horror of the terrorist attacks. Executives from JP Morgan Chase and Bright Horizons, after conducting an informal assessment of select New York City schools, parents and other child care providers to deal with children’s trauma, and found that most needed help approaching these issues.

Within days after 9/11, leaders from both organizations met with leaders of the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps to discuss how to fill this gap. They quickly came up with a solution: arm parents, teachers and early educators with training and materials to recognize trauma and promote resilience in affected children.

“In those first days, New York was like a war zone – the whole city had stopped and was shocked and devastated. Children were particularly vulnerable, and we felt a strong responsibility to help them,” recounts Linda Mason, chairman and co-founder of Bright Horizons and Mercy Corps’ board chair. “Our goal was to create a simple set of skills and materials that parents, teachers and caregivers could use to help children heal. Comfort for Kids provided quick and much-needed relief to hundreds of thousands of children and families trying to grapple with the impact of the 9/11 attacks.”

Over the next several weeks, the three groups worked closely to make the program a reality. Each party brought something to the table: Bright Horizons developed a trainer of trainers program, developed the curriculum, and brought in their vendors for supplies. Mercy Corps brought years of experience working with people in disaster zones around the world, and ran the trainings and distribution of materials. JP Morgan provided generous financial support, space for the training program, and printed the books. Their offices and employee volunteers became the logistics heart of the program.

Together with the Dougy Center, a Portland-based organization that supports grieving children and families, the three groups conducted trainings in 100 school districts and 200 childcare centers, as well as with 200 community-based organizations and dozens of mental health organizations. Mercy Corps selected participants who worked with children considered to be at risk, meaning they were likely to suffer trauma but were not receiving mental health counseling or similar services. In addition, the groups distributed thousands of Comfort Kits containing age appropriate comfort items like toys, books and stuffed animals to children across the city.

Approximately 8,000 people working with at-risk children were trained to help children cope with trauma. Mercy Corps estimates that Comfort for Kids helped more than 250,000 children, whether through Comfort Kits or storytelling workshops, or by interacting with adults who had gained skills, knowledge and awareness through the program.

The disaster resource and accompanying training materials, What Happened to My World: Helping Children Cope in Turbulent Times, was authored by Bright Horizons’ early education leader, the late Jim Greenman. It has since been translated into more than half-a-dozen languages and used to support early educators and parents dealing with the terror and natural disaster around the world.

In the years since 9/11, Mercy Corps has implemented Comfort for Kids – often with the support of Bright Horizons – in a diverse range of post-disaster environments, including post-Katrina New Orleans, the war-battered Gaza Strip, and earthquake-rattled areas of China, Haiti, Peru, Chile and Japan. In the coming weeks, Mercy Corps will take Comfort for Kids to conflict-ridden Libya.

“Often after disasters, there are so many physical needs that emotional needs can be neglected,” said Mason. “Left untreated, traumatized children are at increased risk to develop serious, sometimes life-long problems: regressive or anti-social behavior, depression, aggression, and difficulties in school.”

In each country, Comfort for Kids has been tailored to reflect local language, culture and customs. The program has often been coupled with “Moving Forward,” which uses soccer and other sports to help young people recover physically, socially, mentally and emotionally from major trauma.