On a muddy, rock-strewn field,
a huge white tent with arched, plastic windows stands on high ground above the fast-moving Minjiang River.
Inside the tent, our volunteers and staff are assembling and painting small chairs, tables, and shelves. This is our first-ever “BigTop” — a preschool and community center adjacent to the large refugee shelter designed to house 15,000 people in earthquake-ravaged Dujiangyan.
Besides our unique style of preschool, each of the six (we hope!) BigTops will offer summer and after school counseling, art classes and other therapeutic activities for school-age children, as well as counseling and training for caregivers, teachers, parents and foster parents. The task is a familiar one for OneSky’s staff, who have been creating kid-friendly havens for children in orphanages for a decade, but it quickly became clear that there are unusual logistical issues for this new venture.
The six-inch-thick concrete floor that anchors our BigTop is solid, but two puddles have collected inside after the last big rain storm. With help from a Guangzhou contractor who is in Sichuan to build roads, a fix was engineered.
The tent will stay dry for the children during this season of rain and shattered dreams in Sichuan.
Nearby, a prefabricated instant community is struggling to settle into some sort of normal life.
These are the last days before the summer holiday begins.
In vinyl-walled classrooms, primary students are attending “tent school”, run by newly-trained psychologists and volunteers. The walls are decorated with artwork, much of it by the children. In this town where the most prestigious middle school collapsed and killed so many bright, ambitious students, one child drew a mobile school complete with a lookout telescope and radar to pick up any sign of danger. The school is floating on what looks like a cloud that can move it out of danger should the earth below start to shake again.
“When I grow up I want to be a scientist so I can invent a machine that will predict earthquakes hours before they happen and I can take all the children to safety. And I will give the machine to everybody in the world for free.”
“All I want is to go home.”
“I want the earthquake to be gone so we can be happy again.”
Who wouldn’t want to make their wishes come true? The wishes of children struggling to come to terms with a disaster that shattered everything they counted on—the rock solid earth they walked on, the mountains that were supposed to loom majestically above, not break apart, raining dangerous rocks, and most of all the comfort of their homes and their parents and teachers.
June 20, 2008
OneSky’s first BigTop has officially opened!
In addition to the toys, books, music, and art supplies that OneSky provides at all of its Children’s Centers, the BigTop is stocked with toys recommended by National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSTB) trauma experts.
Toy figures of family members because children overwhelmed by the grief of losing one or two parents may use them to bury moms and dads. Small animal families for children who can’t bear to bury toy moms and dads, but may bury a mama bear and a papa bear.
And lots of toys that reflect the positive side of every disaster—the people who came to help—soldiers, doctors, nurses, as well as the equipment—bulldozers, cranes and trucks—first used to look for survivors, and now used for the enormous rebuilding effort.
Nothing is the same anymore…
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Yellow,” answers the girl at a BigTop gathering.
“Yellow,” agrees her friend.
“What’s a color you don’t like?”
“I don’t like grey,” offers the younger girl as her friend nods.
“I want you to think about yellow and breathe in deep yellow. Let’s breathe yellow in together. Breathe in the yellow. In comes all of the calm, in comes all of the relaxing feelings. Breathe.
“Breathe. Now breathe out the grey. Slowly, slowly breathe out the scared feelings, breathe out the grey, breathe out the worry.”
The girls, breathing deeply in and out, look at each other and smile.
Gurwitch, Program Coordinator at the NCSCB, has offered such simple yet powerful techniques to children who have experienced natural and man-made disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing, the collapse of the towers on 9/11, and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and now the 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan.
Gurwitch says she doesn’t help children “get over” disasters because you cannot get over the death of loved ones: “You help children become resilient, you help children cope with this and whatever comes next. And you help them grow and continue to move forward. The earthquake will be on the back page long before the need goes away. The best care is long-term care.”
Before she leaves the BigTop, Gurwitch returns to the two girls to ask if they can make a promise to use the yellow and grey breathing whenever they need it and to practice it every day. “Do we have a deal?”
The girls smile and in the universal language of childhood offer their fingers up for a pinky promise—two small girls swearing to take care of themselves as they learn to make their way in a world that will never be the same.