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Extra support for tsunami kids pays off

Schools are sprucing up, teachers are on their toes, and students are outperforming peers.

By Nachammai RamanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 2005


Children in Panagattu Colony in Cuddalore Old Town didn't have a playground before the tsunami. Now they do. And they also have trained volunteers who play with them after school.

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Children suffered heavily in the tsunami, accounting for at least one-third of the death toll and losing caregivers, relatives, and homes. But young survivors are seeing some gains in their lives half a year later as they go back to school in the new academic year that began last month.

The international community's slogan for the tsunami recovery effort, "build back better," is transforming into reality for children. One recent metric: Students in tsunami-affected areas scored several points higher on average than those in other parts of the state on two sets of standardized academic exams.

"Now they're making things better than what they were before the tsunami," says G. Letchumi, a woman from the fishing community in an island off Cuddalore called Sothikuppam.

The island village is becoming child-friendly after more than 20 children drowned in the Dec. 26 tidal waves while being ferried across to the mainland. The elementary school on the island will be upgraded into a middle school, so only older high-school age children will have to go off the island to get an education, according to S. Poongkodi, a local mother of four. "The teachers in the school are making an effort to teach well so that we don't take our children outside the island in search of better schools."

School has been the focal point of normalizing tsunami-affected children's lives. Much of the relief supplies for children - books, school uniforms, clothes, snacks, medicines - were given out on school grounds.

"Because we were distributing things, children started coming back to school," says teacher T. Manimekalai at the Government Girls Higher Secondary School in Cuddalore Old Town. "They were coming back to see friends also. Parents found school a safe place to leave their children because homes were destroyed and the adults in the household were all running around to get rations, certificates, and other handouts."

Tsunami-affected school buildings are not only getting repaired, but also spruced up. "The general infrastructure of our school has improved after the tsunami," says Mr. Manimekalai. Private donors paid for the construction of a new peripheral wall, which the school lacked all along, a sports ground, two laboratories, and toilet stalls.

Teaching as consolers

At the Devanampattinam Government Middle School, teachers R. Kausalya and C. Alphonsa Mary remember how "dull" their students were when they came back to school after the tsunami. The teachers made it a point to personally inquire of each student's well-being every day and even console parents when necessary. "We didn't feel the strain of the extra work because we wanted the children to get back on their feet," says Kausalya.

"Teachers were told to make children spend their emotional energy on activities that would divert their thoughts from the tsunami," says K. Jaishree, a teacher educator at an education department office in Cuddalore who is working with UNICEF in training teachers to give psychological and social support to children.

In UNICEF's project in Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, and Kanyakumari districts, psychosocial support is also being extended to children after school through volunteers of the Nehru Yuva Kendra, an arm of the Indian Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. These volunteers concentrate mostly on working with children through play and identifying any psychological problems they might have. "If they find any abnormality in the children, they refer them to primary healthcare centers," says Ramaraju Mani, coordinator at the Cuddalore center. "In villages, nobody will accept having their children seen by a psychologist [because that has a connotation of mental illness]."

A few other aid agencies and charities have been conducting afterschool homework help programs for children. With all these school and afterschool programs, tsunami-affected children are kept wholesomely occupied, according to Kausalya.

Kids helping kids