Florida professor uses play to help child victims of disasters

VICKIE CHACHERE
Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. - One child's crayon drawing shows a swirling sea that has engulfed houses, trees and people, their arms outstretched in a last attempt to save themselves from the deadly wave.

Another 8-year-old orphan painted a darker scene in water colors, where a muddy swirling waves and hauntingly detailed faces of the drowning victims.

The pictures are disturbing visions into what the children saw when the tsunami hit last December, but also were therapeutic for the young Sri Lankans who watched their families and neighbors being swept away.

The children got the art materials in February from Jennifer Baggerly, a University of South Florida assistant professor who specializes in play therapy for traumatized children. She used the same method to coax fear and anxiety out of Florida's young hurricane victims a few months earlier.

For children on both sides of the world whose homes were destroyed, the best way to cope can be found in the trappings of childhood - a crayon, a piece of drawing paper, a puppet show.

"The images get stacked up in the children's mind if they don't get the support to express it through drawing and play," Baggerly said.

Baggerly, 42, has been working with traumatized children for more than a decade, focusing on those who lived in homeless shelters. After the Sept. 11 attacks, she turned to helping children who had survived catastrophes and training emergency workers in dealing with young disaster victims.

Some studies indicate that a child's developing brain can suffer permanent damage if anxiety is untreated. While the research into childhood trauma is complicated, the therapy is not. Children only need to play and learn new ways to communicate their fears, Baggerly said.

Last year, she traveled to Florida's Highlands County, which was hit hard by Hurricane Charley, to work with children at an emergency aid center for families. The children had no toys, no organized activities and plenty of nervous energy, fear and anxiety.

When Baggerly arrived, the only entertainment for children was a television set up in a corner with some folding chairs in front of it.

She brought art supplies for the children to create signs and drawings designating the corner of the center their personal space. The activity allowed them to regain a bit of control when their world had been turned topsy-turvy, she said.

"The procedures you use for trauma after a hurricane are similar to the ones you use after a war," she said. "You try to help them be optimistic and focus in the here and now."

The children were taught a song to sing to themselves when they were scared. The song, "I am safe, I am strong, take a breath and sing this song," is intended to calm their fears and anxieties.

But as hard as it was for the children who lost their homes in the hurricane, they at least had plenty of food and clean water to meet their most basic needs.

That was missing when Baggerly arrived in Sri Lanka with a delegation of therapists sent by Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based international aid organization, to check on children in refugee camps and orphanages.

Operation USA President Richard Walden said the group has sent several teams of therapists and various shipments of toys and art supplies to Sri Lanka and other countries hit by the tsunami. In a disaster of such magnitude, it is easy to overlook children's' unique needs, he said.

"We just basically say that toys are medicine for children, period," Walden said. "Whether it's a giant box of a thousand Frisbees or a couple of hundred tennis balls. You show up in some of these places and they have nothing to play with."

Baggerly and the other therapists traveled to Trincomale in northeast part of the country where children have been doubly traumatized. Baggerly visited an orphanage and refugee camps for minority Hindu Tamils who have been forced from their homes in the country's long-running civil war.

The orphanage was near the beach, which Baggerly said was still scattered with shoes and clothes from tsunami victims who were swept to sea.

"You see women's saris on the beach. It was a constant reminder of the tragedy."

She taught the children yoga techniques to deepen their breathing and calm their nerves, and a "butterfly hug," where the children cross their arms in front of their chest and tap their fingers. The movement engages both sides of the brain and can snap a child consumed with a disturbing past back into the present, she said.

But most importantly, the therapists taught the children to play again.

It was the start of bringing the children out of their shells, she said.

"They were afraid mainly of playing outside because they thought another tsunami was coming," she said. "The teachers were kind of perpetuating that fear."

Baggerly encouraged the children to go outside and run around, teaching them the classic American game of "Duck, Duck, Goose!"

Baggerly and the other volunteers put on a puppet show and told a story about animals that had something bad happen to them. Working through translators, they addressed the children's fear that another tsunami would come.

They explained that it had been an earthquake which had caused the giant wave. In a young child's mind - in which they are the center of all things which occur - many of the children had believed they were responsible for the killer wave or that they were being punished by a higher power.

"They were saying, 'Did the tsunami come because I had bad thoughts?'" Baggerly said.

Despite the differences in the magnitude of the two disasters, Baggerly said the children in Florida and Sri Lanka suffered similar anxieties about the future and fears of another disaster.

In Florida, the children's fears came true as the state was hit by three more hurricanes after Charley.