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American Samoa's Children Given Safe Space to Laugh Again
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October 19, 2009

In a corner of the convention center on American Samoa, little girls sat down with crayons and paper under the watchful eyes of American Red Cross workers and drew pictures of their homes.  

Niusami Aueluua lies in a tent set up by the American Red Cross in American Samoa.
Niusami Aueluua lies in a tent set up by the American Red Cross in American Samoa.
Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross
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Video: Children's Recovery in American Samoa
 Video: Children's Recovery in American Samoa

“One drew a cat on top of her house with water all around it,” said Red Cross worker Susannah Fulling of St. Louis. “One drew a picture of sharks and fish all around her house.  They didn’t say this is a drawing of my house in the tsunami (but) I think that’s their way of expressing their fear.”

Fuller is among 300 workers from Red Cross chapters in American Samoa, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland who have joined other relief workers to help those affected by the September 29 tsunami.

The American Red Cross has teamed with partner organizations to specifically address the needs of children after disasters, whether for physical safety, specialized food and clothing, or attention to mental health and spiritual care.  Their efforts are highlighted in this video.

On American Samoa, the Red Cross and Save the Children - a partner organization for more than two years—stocked and staffed a “Safe Space” play area in the convention center where families lined up to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance.

Catholic Charities, a long-time partner of the Red Cross, is sorting and distributing clothing donations. Red Cross workers are repackaging specialty supplies that arrived over the weekend, including diapers, baby formula, school supplies and Mickey Mouse dolls.

And Red Cross specialists in mental health and spiritual care are working with members of the faith-based community on American Samoa, helping children from preschool to high school deal with the loss of family members and classmates who were among the reported 34 killed in the tsunami.

Elizabeth Cutter, an American Red Cross volunteer from Oak Park, Ill., saw children’s needs firsthand when she and other volunteers traveled to villages on American Samoa to build round tents, called yurts, to serve as temporary housing for families whose homes had been damaged or destroyed. The volunteers also gathered information about family size and necessities.

Early last week, Cutter, Fulling and Lindsey Stailing, all Red Cross volunteers as well as members of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, left field work temporarily to work with children in the convention center. Work was actually play, as children and volunteers took up beach balls, blocks, tea sets and crayons.

“Most of us don’t ask about the tsunami, and that’s intentional,” Stailing said. “A few children were drawing pictures, and saying, ‘We miss Aunt So-and-so’ or ‘We miss Grandpa.’ That would bring them to talk about it.

“Two boys told their stories in a very serious way—very mature—and they were only 8 or 9. One was running away from the waves. Another was farther up the hill, and he watched the waves take out his church and his neighbor’s houses….They are very resilient.”

But even the most resilient may need additional help dealing with disaster. On American Samoa, six mental-health specialists and one spiritual care adviser from the American Red Cross are working with teachers, churches, parents and kids to help children recover. Within two weeks of arriving on American Samoa, the specialists met individually with almost 460 children, visited 13 classrooms and spoke at school assemblies attended by 2,200 students.

Washington state residents Tim Serban, Marysville, a Red Cross spiritual care adviser and mental-health worker Lyle O’Neal of Spokane spent last Thursday with 300 middle school students in the village of Aua, east of the American Samoa capital of Pago Pago.

“All of these kids were either at school or home at the time of the earthquake (that triggered the tsunami) and beneath a huge mountain with a nearly completely vertical drop,” Serban said in an e-mail. “Almost all saw a landslide happen as the sheer rocks fell….By the time the tsunami hit, most were safe high up on the mountain….No students were lost, but many have friends who lost homes or know at least two people who have died.”

Serban and O’Neal listened to children in Aua describe emotional aftershocks which are still causing sleepless nights so O’Neal suggested that children and adults plan their dreams.  “Rather than simply letting thoughts and images of the earthquake and tsunami fill their minds just before bedtime, we suggest that they draw their favorite place or image or happy dream and put it under their pillows and, before they go to sleep, think about the happy picture,” Serban said.

He and O’Neal are scheduled to return to the school to find out if the dream planning helped, but Serban left the village with his own sense of peace: “When you spend your day with children,” he said, “you are renewed.”

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation's blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.

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