Extra support for tsunami kids pays off

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

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.

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

Children themselves supported their tsunami-affected friends. "Our friends were falling behind with their lessons, so we helped them catch up and explained things they didn't understand," says P. Subashree, a high school student.

All this support seemed to pay off in at least one tangible way with the higher test scores. According to figures released in May and June by the Department of Government Examinations in Madras, the pass percentage on the higher secondary exam in tsunami-affected areas is 79.38; the state average is 76.9. On the school leaving exam, the pass rate in tsunami zones is 81.31 versus 77.8 state-wide. In previous years, such gaps were not noticeable.

For youths who've left the school system, employment opportunities are cropping up. "Now, nongovernmental organizations are offering vocational training. Before the tsunami, they weren't doing anything for the educated young people in our village," says Poongkodi.

On the whole, Mr. Mani thinks the tsunami has given literacy a boost in the fishing community. "After the tsunami, [affected adults] had to fill out forms and all that. They couldn't do this on their own and they realized the value of education. So, now they're sending their children to school properly."

After losing their three kids, one couple comforts others

Nagapattinam, India - With fishing and related economic activities still in a slump and permanent housing not yet in sight, tsunami-affected adults, unlike children, remain off kilter. But very little psychological support has been extended to them because of the lack of mental health professionals in India.

It has fallen on survivors to counsel fellow survivors. M. Parameswaran of Nagapattinam, who lost all his three children and seven relatives in the tidal waves, started filling the gap early on. "So many nongovernmental organizations were giving material things. But devastated people, they also need comfort and peace. So, we were doing that," he says.

Since January, Mr. Parameswaran and his wife, Choodamani, have been going to tsunami-affected areas in Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu to revive the broken spirits of survivors and to get them to move on. "We have to recover from this disaster. We have to survive. We shouldn't be covering our heads with a cloth and sitting in a corner," says Parameswaran.

Choodamani remembers her excruciating grief after the tsunami. "Why did this incident happen in my life, I kept asking," she says. But the turning point came when she heard an inner voice saying to her, "When your husband is saved, do you think I couldn't have saved your children?" She took that to be the voice of God and found spiritual comfort in her Christian faith. "I stopped grumbling and weeping. I said, my children are with God. They're in the right place."

Her courage and strength helped Parameswaran get out of his funk. Within a week's time they were consoling a bereaved neighbor. "We were strong enough to come out of our emotions. We wanted to help others," says Choodamani.

Parameswaran's inspirational work of spreading comfort has brought him a lot of local attention and praise. "Your speech on the evening of the 9th was very powerful," Indhu from Coimbatore wrote him. So many people send notes these days that Parameswaran spends most of his off-work hours reading e-mail and writing letters, says Choodamani.

Because the Parameswarans' home felt empty without kids, they decided to take in tsunami orphans. "We needed to fill this house with children," says Parameswaran. "When we're diverting our thoughts to other children, we're forgetting all our sorrow."

Lives have changed after being touched by the Parameswarans' story. Childless after 20 years of marriage, V. R. Hemalatha of Kerala used to get depressed. "I used to feel lonely and ask why God has not given any child to me." After reading about the Parameswarans in a local magazine, her whole outlook changed. "Now, I want to help poor children and orphans."

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