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Thursday, March 4, 2010

And a child shall lead them. .. Gail Belchers story

The Journey

The date was December 26th, 2005. A huge tsunami had hit the coasts of many countries in South East Asia. It was devastating!

All my life, for as long as I can remember, I was going to grow up to be a nurse and go to Africa and help the sick children. It was my personal dream but life got in the way. I got married, had two children and all the rest is history. But I never forgot the children---

My nursing career took me to the children in Canada. Not the children with cuts and bruises and fevers---but the children with hidden illnesses, sometimes silent illnesses of mental health. Neurological or societal---the children of broken homes, abuse, loneliness, sadness, loss, depression and sometimes rage. It was where I wanted to be.

At least until I saw the children of South East Asia on television in my cosy living room. Suddenly my childhood longings leapt to the forefront of my being. It was time to go! and go I did!

I retired from the BC Childrens' Hospital and, by April, I was on a plane to Colombo Sri Lanka. There was no reasoning with me. It was something I had to do. I have no idea what made me believe that I could journey to the centre of all those tears and be of some help to the children there.

The physical devastation was everywhere. The beach was strewn with the belongings of the dead. One of the doctors said that when he was standing on the beach, he felt that he was standing in a sea of ghosts. I never forgot that.

The Tamil people were so friendly and so eager to tell their stories. I don't know how many stories I bore witness to while I was there. Aduts and children alike would wander up to me on the beach or on the streets of Kalmunai to tell their story. I believe that this sort of informal sharing in the community is something we have lost in North America.

This youngster was only too happy to tell me the story of his escape up the trunk of the tree he is standing beside. He escaped not just once, but twice, up the same tree. There were two waves that hit the shore, the second one was the larger. It took me a couple of days to acclimatize to the vast extent of the destruction.

Rose Charities already had our man Anthony on site in a house in Kalmunai and he had already hired a team of approximately 12 young people who were our counseling team. As an aside Anthony is the Canadian man of Sri Lankan origins who was followed by Global TV at the time of the tsunami. He and his wife and two daughters had lost a total of 56 family members in Kalmunai. He quite simply had to go and he has not returned, instead running Rose Charities Sri Lanka on a shoe string budget.

It was my responsibility to go out to the schools with the counseling team and meet with the students one classroom at a time. There was a total of 18 schools that we were involved with. The teachers at these schools had started school classes in very early January in an effort to bring some normalcy back to the lives of the children. There were many teachers who died; many teachers and principals had family who had died; many students at the schools had died; everyone had lost many friends.
These teachers and principals are the true heroes of the tsunami.

The task was formidable! The counseling team started with the youngest students at the hardest hit schools and moved on from there. These are the bravest young people I have ever met. Imagine having the courage to walk into those classrooms and support those children in their loss and grief. These young people had no formal counseling knowledge. They had lost family and friends as well. My job was to teach and supervise their work with the children.

Mostly what I taught were little things---make eye contact, get down to their level on your knees, stay calm yourselves (breath, breath, breath), offer comfort, be reassuring, touch them on their arms and shoulders, listen, listen, listen., answer questions, ask questions, smile when appropriate, observe for signs of PTSD---child by child, desk by desk, classroom by classroom, school by school, camp by camp. Arrange a central room for play therapy on Saturdays, travel out to the isolated camps on Sundays. We did art sessions. We did plays about the tsunami.
We demonstrated the tsunami with a balloon full of wate. We had the children sing songs for us. We had them play games with us.

These children are truly amazing! They are resilience personified. When they said, " A very good morning to you ma'am", they chirped like little birds. I will never forget their beautiful smiles or their soulful eyes or their exhuberance at play, in spite of everything---their openess, their trust, their honesty.

Initially the children were doing artwork about the tsunami. With simple crayons and paper they drew pictures of their life before the tsunami, pictures of the tsunami and then pictures of their life now, after the tsunami. The counseling team would mingle and talk to them, offering support and encouragement while they were drawing. Sometimes the children would cry. Sometimes they would talk. Sometimes they were silent---and sad. Later, we would have them draw pictures of their future. They are very studious and they all wanted to be doctors and teachers and lawyers and nurses when they grow up.

We did a special project at one of the schools. I had brought squares of plain beige cloth with me to Sri Lanka. We had gathered a special group of children who had experienced major losses from one of the schools. They were selected from all the classrooms and were all ages. They were asked to trace their hands with crayons onto the cloth and, then to draw or print anything they wanted on their squares. It was magical! Some of the squares were joyful, some were full of sorrow and some were full of anger. From these squares I created a quilt. It is hanging now at the Childrens' centre in Kalmunai.

Another modality we used for the older children was to have them write their stories, although they did love being able to draw. I remember the first group of high school students that we did this exercise with. The children were not used to having crayons or coloured pencils--or even plenty of pencils. Especially, they weren't used to having paper. Often they would take a school exercise book and, when it was all used, they would erase all their work and start writing in the book all over again. The focus and the energy that these brave young people put into their stories was nothing short of amazing. They wrote and wrote their little hearts out. Some of them even wrote poetry.The plan was to have them share their stories with each other in smaller groups in the future, although I was not there for that experience.

The counseling group took the time to process that experience with me the following day. They read one story in particular and then translated it for me. There were no dry eyes that day! It is the one quality that these young counselors possess that has stayed with me. They are not afraid of the tears!

When I left Kalmunai, I cried. I waved goodbye to the team from the car window. At that moment I think I knew that I would be back!

The Return

It was clear that the counseling team would need more skills to move forward with the Kalmunai kids in the future. What those skills would be was unclear. It was felt that there was so little available to the kids both inside and outside of school. They were no toys, no sports equipment, no places to play. Everyone was afraid of the beach. Any open spaces were filled up with camps for the homeless. We had delivered cricket sets to some of the schools and camps but there was so much more to do.

My husband is a Youth Counselor who also happens to have played a lot of sports in his "hay day"---principally basketball! So in November I returned to Sri Lanka, husband in tow. We visited schools and camps. We discovered basketball courts. We gave out awards for the Elephants and Roses art competition. We opened bank accounts with money for the winners---yes, they had a little childrens' bank on site at the school and the childrens' passbooks were so cute with pictures of elephants on them.

Most importantly, my husband was able to start some basketball games with the kids. I was the sideline Mom figure who gave the kids healthy treats, talked with them about life, learned Sri Lankan language from them and also gave them crayons and paper to draw with. Some of them were still expressing trauma about their losses during the tsunami through art.

We met with CIDA and World Vision, wrote initial proposals for project money and tried to sell the idea for a childrens' center in Kalmunai. Money, money, money--- moooney! Play is so critical in terms of the children having an opportunity to work out their losses and their stressors. But these kids had no where to play and nothing to play with.

The Memorial
Our counseling team and Anthony and those amazing teachers and principals have done it again. They organized, not one, but two memorial marches for the childen in Kalmunai---one at 6 months and one at 12 months. They lit candles, they marched from one end of town to the other, passing 18 schools on the way, they sang, they prayed Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian prayers, but most importantly they gathered in huge numbers to mark the day when their world came tumbling down.

The Peace Project
One of the members CIDA spoke quietly to my husband as we were leaving Sri Lanka. He said, "Why don't you write a Sports for Peace proposal and submit it to CIDA?" Now this man is a Sri Lankan who was educated at st. Michael's School in Batticaloa, close to Kalmunai. From my story you will recall that this is the one place in Sri Lanka where basketball reigns supreme. He is a basketball fan! He wants to start with a Basketball for Peace program. So we came home and Rose Charities began writing serious proposals.

Because the 22 year civil war is escalating. Because these children have never known anything but war. Because Rose Charities sponsored an art competition for the children. Because the topic was Peace and all that was received in Vancouver were drawings of war. These children have no concept of what peace looks like because they have never known it. Yes, it has happened. In April 2007, CIDA approved a grant to our program in Kalmunai for $220,000. The title of the project is Sports for Peace. Steve Nash has been contacted for support. This means that countless Hindu, Muslim, Sinhalese and Christian children will be brought together to play in peace and harmony. The land has been purchased and prepared for the childrens' center. More money is needed to build it. When it is opened, it will be called The Tsunami Memorial Childrens' Center. There will be a healing garden there. The plants have already been planted and will be moved there before the opening. There is a huge rock in this garden, a strange rock formation that was found on the beach. The plaque reads:


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