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NW Group Sends “Comfort for Kids” to Haiti

January 26, 2010

PORTLAND, Ore. - The needs in Haiti are many - food and water, shelter, medical supplies and sanitation - but mental health also figures into families' ability to survive after this month's earthquake. This weekend, a Mercy Corps team arrived in Haiti with a mental health mission. The group, with offices in Portland and Seattle, is offering "Comfort for Kids," a program they used in the United States after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, and at quake sites in China and Peru.

Griffen Samples, technical adviser and trainer for "Comfort for Kids," says the brief lessons and materials are designed to prompt children and adults to start talking, and healing.

"One of the great lessons from previous disasters we've been involved in is that people need to talk about it, they need to get out their stories. But children tend not to talk about things first; first, they act them out. Then, they draw; they might write about it next, and they might talk about it last."

Even before a disaster, says Samples, mental health services in impoverished countries are few; and now, parents who are frantically trying to meet children's basic needs don't have much time to consider their emotional health. That's why, she says, the handouts and other materials are short and easy to use.

"There's simple things about how to answer kids' questions, how to recognize what are normal reactions to trauma, as opposed to bad behavior. A lot of times, people think that a kid is acting out or they're being bad, when in fact, it's actually just a normal response to a trauma."

Samples says her team will work with parents and grandparents, teachers and child-care providers, with materials in French and Creole. For the kids, they've also put together "comfort kits" that include blankets, stuffed animals and books.

Mercy Corps is already supplying food and water in Haiti, and hiring survivors in a pay-for-work program to clear debris and start rebuilding. The group is posting updates on its Web site, www.mercycorps.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR