Child-Friendly Spaces in Haiti

By Sarita Wolf

Michelene, a nine-year old girl now living with her mother and two siblings in an internally displaced persons camp in the middle of Port-au-Prince, softly slips her hand into mine and tugs me over to her table where she just finished painting a triangle tessellation. She beams me a huge smile as I hold her art piece up while the room monitor—a local teacher from the same camp—looks on approvingly. Michelene is just one of the over 4,000 children who currently attend integrated education and healing programs facilitated by AMURT-Haiti (Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team) in various camps and neighborhoods in Port au Prince. Her home was destroyed in the January 12th earthquake, and she was left homeless and traumatized by the tragic loss of two of her younger siblings. Four days after the quake, the family collected a few family treasures from the rubble and moved to the camp where they continue to live in a small shelter built with sticks, pieces of plastic and a tarp.

The January 12th catastrophe radically changed the lives of millions of Haitians living in Port au Prince and throughout the country. The devastation left in the aftermath of the quake continues to threaten the well being of hundreds of thousands of people. The most vulnerable of course are children like Michelene. Many of these children lack adequate food, water and shelter for survival, and the daily hardships they face and the on-going threats to their mental and physical well being continue with little respite. In the days immediately following the earthquake, it became clear to the AMURT-Haiti team that our efforts needed to focus on these most vulnerable members of the population. On a Sunday morning a few weeks after the quake, with some initial planning by both new and veteran AMURT-Haiti team members, the Haitian Ananda Marga community came together after our weekly collective meditation to begin formalizing a plan to serve these children in a long-lasting, transformational manner. From this meeting, our Child-Friendly Space (in Creole Espas Zanmi Ti Moun or “EZT”) program was born.

“Child-Friendly Space” is a term used in the international disaster relief community to describe a place where various types of support can be provided to children in a time of severe crisis. For the AMURT-Haiti EZTs, we defined our goals in an integrated way, striving to address the whole child by putting together various Neohumanist Education (NHE) elements centering around the needs of the particular communities of children. The programs were designed to respond to the educational, psycho-social, emotional and spiritual needs of those who experienced hardship by providing safety, security and a transition to normalcy. And like all AMURT-Haiti programs, our approach with these projects began with community engagement, carefully identifying needs, helping the community served define their own goals and resources, introducing NHE philosophy and principles, and then providing integrated solutions that are principally implemented by the community itself. The community helped identify and interview members of the team of community organizers, trainers, coaches and monitors who became the backbone of the program coordination. This coordinated team begins and ends all decision-making processes with community consultation, direction and involvement.

In mid-February, when we opened our first EZT at our AMSAI base in Delmas, the air filled with a rush of excitement. Well-dressed monitors, in crisply ironed skirts and shirts, arrived early to setup. Excited but tentative children arrived tightly clasping their parents’ hands, and our training team scurried from tent to tent providing materials and coaching our monitors. In just a few days the school-yard, which had become AMURT’s disaster relief logistical headquarters, was transformed from a drab dusty yard full of motorcycles, trucks, boxes and construction materials, into a colorful children’s camp full of energy, smiles, love and hope.

Since the first EZT opened, we have inaugurated several additional sites. Working mostly in displaced-person camps throughout Port-au-Prince, we are currently running seven EZTs serving over 4,000 children between ages 4 and 12. The programs have been consistently featured on national and international media sources, and have been given as examples of well-rounded and high-quality child-focused interventions in very difficult urban conditions. A typical day at one of our EZTs starts with children gathering in their “home” space for the “Circle of Love”, a special time that starts with a guided breathing exercise, and continues with community building activities such as learning new songs and “News Ball”—sharing of a greeting or a personal thought. Three monitors facilitate each “class” of 25 children. The children travel with their class, rotating through four tents housing different activities where they gain a balanced exposure to various types of NHE learning. Our primary goal is to provide the children with a feeling of safety and security, and this is achieved in part through team-building games, yoga and cooperative sports, partner sharing, quiet reflection and open discussion.

As the EZTs have progressed over time, and in order to prepare the children to a return to regular school in the months ahead, we have begun to introduce more literacy and numeracy skills through a variety of play activities. For example, children read stories together, then create play-dough characters, and finally perform a skit with the characters to extend the story. A typical numeracy activity allows children to string colorful beads for friendship bracelets to learn about counting and patterns. Each day children also pause from the energetic activities to do relaxing yoga asanas and guided breathing visualizations. Monitors have been trained to teach basic individual and partner poses to stimulate the child’s inner strength. Children finish their day with another round of snacks and group sharing. Often they do not want to leave at the end of the session, pleading to have another round of activity. Modulating high and low energy activities in a deliberate way helps children learn strategies for dealing with their circumstances, stresses, and emotions in a constructive way.

Ongoing professional development is an integral component of a successful and transformational program. Our team has been providing ample opportunities for professional growth through rigorous training for all monitors and support staff of the EZTs, often focusing on various NHE elements. The program allows time for monitors to work collaboratively to create activity plans for different age groups that involve psycho-social, educational, and creative activities. Monitors receive regular support as on-site trainers circulate throughout the camp sites to model and do side-by-side coaching. They also receive special weekly training on topics such as activity planning, positive discipline, self-care, active listening, group norms, and play therapy. Our goal is to infuse the curriculum with loving and healing child-centered and experiential NHE activities that are easy to practice and replicate regardless of the difficult conditions. One of the indicators that the EZT program has been successful in doing this is the transformation noticed in children’s art – vivid and joyful colors and elements have replaced the initially dark tones and themes.

Hopefully, the children who participate in the EZTs will look back at these past months and remember experiences and feelings that were positive and filled with light and love, and perhaps the scars of the loss and struggles they faced will begin to heal. As one of thousands of children served by the EZT program, Michelene will anxiously return tomorrow for another day of singing, painting, and especially playing with her new friends.

Note: Sarita Wolf left her teaching career within days after the earthquake to contribute to AMURT’s relief work in Haiti, and has been coordinating all NHE-related child-protection activities there. The program has been widely praised for its efficiency and originality, and will continue into 2011 expanding into community-leadership, adult training, and afterschool activities.