Hurricanes Irma and Maria taught us the importance of having in place a comprehensive disaster preparedness plan, focussed on Child Protection in Emergencies. Planning for a disaster well in advance, ensures that interventions after the crisis has passed, are clear and well thought out, thus making recovery faster and smoother.
The Return to Happiness program (RTH) uses play therapy to help children who have experienced disasters, community violence, death and other traumatic events. It encourages children to share their feelings about difficult situations through fun activities such as storytelling, games, art, music, crafts, acting, puppetry and more. We talked to Tamara Groeneveldt, program coordinator from the Student Support Services Division (SSSD). This division took the lead in helping to provide the training on Sint Maarten, in collaboration with UNICEF Netherlands. Primary school teacher Kimberley Duzong also shares her experiences with the program.
“We decided to start with a ‘Train the Trainer’ RTH program. The idea was that every primary school would select care team members or teachers from their school to be trained in RTH – and once they were familiar with the program, they would return to the school and train the remaining staff; mostly teachers and care team members,” explains Tamara. SSSD also invited representatives of day care centers, after school programs and community centers to participate in the training, to extend the reach of the program as far as possible. Community organizations and teachers from neighboring islands Saba and St. Eustatius were also invited to participate, with the support of UNICEF Netherlands.
The Train the Trainer program kicked off in April, 2018. Over 150 education professionals were trained, who in turn trained other professionals on Sint Maarten. Tamara: “The first training was a lot of fun. Despite the program being geared towards children, I think even the adult participants experienced the effectiveness of the program. It was just 6 months after the passing of hurricane Irma, and some might not have had the time or space to work through their feelings about the hurricane experience. We noticed that some participants experienced emotional trauma and expressed how nice it was to share and overcome these experiences with their peers.”
At times, children find it difficult to express themselves verbally, so they attempt to do so in other ways. As storytelling forms a large part of our Caribbean culture, this program encourages children to share their feelings through stories, in whatever way they feel comfortable. This method can help them to cope with whatever they need to work through. RTH is executed in a group setting, which allows participants to share and exchange experiences with their peers, in the hope that they will regain a sense of normalcy. The program also teaches participants to ‘red flag’ children that require further interventions, for example counselling.
Persons who successfully completed the Train the Trainers program were required to give trainings in their own schools. All schools were provided with manuals, forms and materials in a comprehensive RTH kit, that was full of fun and creative materials to facilitate interesting and exciting activities for the participants. The training and RTH Kits were funded by UNICEF Netherlands.
Once the RTH trainings had been provided to all primary schools, the SSSD RTH team decided to slightly amend the program to be taught at secondary level. We were looking for a psychosocial program for secondary school students that was culturally relevant. The majority of secondary schools on the island participated. As with elementary schools, persons trained were required to train the staff of their respective schools so that RTH could be implemented across the board in the event of a disaster. We also facilitated a refresher course for the first round of participants involved in the Train the Trainer training.
Our next step is a community wide roll-out: we would like to teach RTH to people in the community who would like to volunteer to assist the SSSD in a disaster, should additional support be needed. However, this effort is being hindered by the current Covid-19 pandemic. RTH is great for anyone who works with children, as it empowers you to help apply basic coping strategies to children in difficult times. Instead of feeling helpless after a disaster, which is a common feeling, many now have the tools to provide hands-on support and feel confident and adequately equipped to say: ‘I can help these kids.’”
When the RTH program was offered to schools in the aftermath of hurricane Irma, Kimberley was one of the staff members selected to follow the training. She enjoys working with children of all ages and previously worked at daycares and an afterschool program before she became a teacher at the St. Dominic Primary School.
“As a teacher, I love to see how I can positively impact children and help them grow. I hope to become a principal someday, but first I want to gain experience as a teacher. At school I am known to be a strict but fair teacher: I think structure is very important when you deal with children. Structure helps them to be successful in the future. Also, kids are more comfortable and learn more when they know what they can expect.
Initially, I did not know what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised when the training started. It was an extensive training, but it easily kept my attention because it was very hands-on. The main goal of the RTH training is to make students feel comfortable and safe after a disaster – a hurricane or an earthquake – or a tragedy such as a death, bus crash, or other happenings that might be difficult to discuss.
It reminded me of my ‘circle time’, which happens daily before traditional classes. During circle time students are given the space to share their thoughts. Children need to talk and discuss. It is important to give them time in school to do this, as some kids might not get that opportunity at home. I also noticed that if you allow them to express their feelings prior to classes, they focus better during the rest of the day.
I liked that RTH teaches you to utilize arts, crafts and music to help children discuss difficult topics. A bonus is that you can do this without breaking the bank. For example, instead of buying puppets you can make your own out of socks or rocks! As long as they are silly and fun, the children will like them. I now incorporate these activities into circle time.
Another aspect of the training that I really enjoyed was that teachers from various schools were invited to join. It was nice to hear different perspectives and learn from each other. I think we should actually have more shared activities with other schools. We practiced the RTH techniques together so many teachers shared stories about their own hardships – it was inspiring to hear how my peers overcame these difficult times.
Most teachers trained
Once the training was completed, it was our turn to train teachers at our schools. That was a great way to see if we had learned and remembered enough, and luckily, I think we did a pretty good job of relaying the information we learned. Most teachers at our school have now completed the RTH training, which I think is an important asset.
This pandemic will be the perfect moment for us to utilize everything we learned with RTH. I’m already planning to incorporate more play, and sing a lot of songs together. I bet there are already fun songs out there about washing your hands – or we can make our own!”
The book Hurricanes and Rainbows comprises a series of stories written by teenagers on Sint Maarten. The project, initiated by psychologist Caroline van Oost and the White and Yellow Cross Care Foundation, aims to bring youngsters and the elderly together to share their memories about hurricanes.
“Sharing and connecting creates a better understanding of each other, something we need to continue to invest in to remain a resilient community”, explains psychologist and initiator Caroline van Oost. With her book project she aims to bring youngsters and the elderly together to share their memories about hurricanes. “What mental imprint does a hurricane leave; how does it affect a person? The teens who helped write the book bravely tell of their personal experiences.”
Their descriptions of the forces of nature are almost poetically: “The winds were extremely strong, so strong that it almost seemed as if there was a voice, someone speaking”. But they also tell us about the imprint the hurricane left: “It brought us together, we shared food, water and other things with our neighbors even though we didn’t have much ourselves.”
Below a brief selection of the book in short fragments, told by Sarafina, Johanna, Jeroen, Raysha and Ifunayya.
“What stood out to me the most was the color of the sky hours before the hurricane. It was alluring, captivating even. As if an artist had made the once dull sky his canvas, painting it in the most beautiful kaleidoscope of colors. I remember how it caught everyone’s attention, luring us into its beauty and distracting us from the storm. The colors – pink, orange, purple and blue– mixing into the most serene and calm depiction. ‘The calm before the storm’ that was what people called it.”
“The heavy gusting wind coming through the windows made it seem like there was a ghost in the house making sounds such as ‘whooooo whooooo’. I was scared, shaking, my heart was beating so fast and my hands and feet were freezing cold. An hour or two later the wind picked up even more. I was staying on the ground floor of a 3-story high concrete building. Believe it or not, it felt like the building was moving. CRACK, CRACK, I heard, as screws were being yanked out of the plywood protecting our front porch window. If it ripped off, we would not be safe. Thank god that the plywood somehow stayed on.”
“It was raining really hard and there was water spraying out of the cracks under the shutters. Eventually the water started flooding the entire house and everyone had to start scooping water. The wind also started picking up and bits of the roof above my porch started flying off. I felt so stressed that I ran downstairs into the room between the stairs and my father’s office. In that room my dogs were laying down on a wet towel and I went to lie next to them and started crying. Later my cat came running down the stairs and lay down with my dogs and I. The only thing I could think of at that time was that that was the first time that my cat and my dogs were next to each other and not fighting.”
“The day of the hurricane my sister, my mother and I were in Surinam, while my father had to go through the horrific storm all by himself. He was hiding in the Sonesta Hotel fridge room while the hurricane passed. According to him if the heavy winds had lasted 30 minutes longer the place in which he was hiding would have been destroyed. After the hurricane he went back to our home and picked up everything he could pick up. It was hard that we couldn’t get him on the phone to know how he was doing or where he was. My family felt really lost. When he finally arrived in Suriname I was so relieved and happy.”
“I continued walking and that’s when I saw the extent of the damage on the island. There were fallen electricity poles and many houses stripped off their foundations. Huge trees were lying on houses and containers were overturned. I didn’t know there were so many houses in Middle Region. Usually, all the green from the trees and bushes hid them from plain sight. But now the houses, or what was left of them, were easy to see. However, the main reason why this memory is so memorable is not because of the destruction, it is because everywhere I saw people helping each other out. Everyone just forgot all their differences, and just came together and gave each other a helping hand.”
These are just a few excerpts of the Hurricane’s and Rainbows book. Those interested in reading more and supporting the White and Yellow Cross Care Foundation can contact Caroline at firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy.
“This might not be a popular opinion, but I think that we use the word ‘trauma’ a bit too easily,” states Xiomara Balentina, psychologist at the Student Support Services Division (SSSD). Xiomara has an impressive list of qualifications including Child and Youth Psychology, Child and Youth Behavioral Therapy and Systemic Therapy.
Born on St. Eustatius, Xiomara moved back to the Caribbean in 2012 to work at SSSD, after having lived in the Netherlands for 16 years. “My role here at the SSSD is very broad. I provide support to students, and by extension, their families and to school care teams. In addition to this, I conduct various psychological assessments, including special education assessment.”
Xiomara has not experienced many trauma cases since working at SSSD. She believes that the word ‘trauma’, especially since the passage of Hurricane Irma, is being used too loosely: just because one experiences a distressing event such as a natural disaster, or even abuse, it does not mean that these experiences will result in a child developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “The local use of the word trauma generally implies the presence of PTSD. However, a child’s level of distress and suffering oftentimes depends on factors such as resilience and the presence of a social network.”
“When a traumatic event happens, let us say a death in the family – it is normal to be sad, have trouble concentrating, be angry, feel lonely and have a multitude of other feelings or display out of the ordinary behaviours. However, if these feelings are not dealt with properly, this might lead to various issues on a long-term basis. If the child is not able to resolve the hurt in a positive manner, if no outlet is provided, it can impact the child in a profound way, which can result in PTSD.”
“In regard to the passage of Hurricane Irma, I would like to stress that many children who experienced the hurricane did not develop a trauma/PTSD. Of course, some children become nervous when it is windy outside, in fact, even adults become a bit tense when we hear the wind blowing, but this is a normal reaction to an extra ordinary experience. Our children tend to be more impacted by the aftermath of a hurricane: inadequate housing, unemployed parents, food shortages, than the actual hurricane itself.
“Prolonged suffering, which results in high levels of stress, impacts the way you look at yourself and others, and it impacts the way you react and function. Research even shows that prolonged suffering can change your DNA.”
That brings Xiomara to the subject of intergenerational trauma. This can be a direct result of unresolved suffering and distress: persons who were abused during childhood can end up in an abusive relationship or abuse their own children later on in life, if they were unable to resolve their early childhood issues, says Xiomara. “Treating intergenerational trauma can be very challenging, if one is not aware of his or her deeply engrained habits and patterns.”
Emotional distress is also a lot harder to prevent or treat if your environment is not providing the needed resources. “For example, we have poverty on Sint Maarten, which can result in prolonged stressful situations and suffering. There are limitations to what I can do, if a child and its family lack basic needs such as shelter, food, water, health. Then the suffering continues. If we, as a community, do not address the larger issues, we will continue the cycle of suffering and distress. We oftentimes try to fix the child or fix the family, but at times the pathology lies within the environment and not within the individual or the family.”
“I remember treating a child who was being neglected by her mother. Her mom and grandmother were also neglected as children. This is a case of intergenerational trauma as we discussed earlier. Attempts were made to expose the pattern to the parent, but this failed. I then tried to assist this child to come to the realization that she is worthy despite of her experiences. However, she needed to hear this from significant others within her network. The stronger a child’s network, the better you can prevent or resolve the suffering.”
There is such a thing as ‘post traumatic growth’ after having experienced a distressing event, explains Xiomara. “Instead of focusing on suffering and distress, we can also focus on the positive things that occur because of negative experiences. Research has discovered that a traumatic event can lead to positive changes. If children, for example, discover that a neighbor cares, that a teacher will protect them, that they can overcome this obstacle – it shows them that they are cared for, are safe, and are strong enough to overcome a challenging situation. Therefore, professionals who work with children can play such an important role in helping to reframe things.”
PTSD is actually a western concept, Xiomara says. “In the 1970’s after the Vietnam War, the term became especially popular within the anti-war movement. The West has held on to the notion that all people experience suffering in the same way, but this is not true. Different societies have different terms and standards for suffering and distress.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the handbook used by health care professionals in the West and much of the world and is viewed as the authoritative guide to diagnosing mental health disorders. However, culture is often not taken into consideration, Xiomara says. “How people interpret and display suffering differs per culture. Here in Sint Maarten, people’s emotional distress is often displayed through the experiencing of physical symptoms. We see complaints such as hypertension, headaches, body pains, etc. It is important to remember this in relation to diagnosing trauma here.”
When she came back to Sint Maarten, she realized that she could not just copy-paste the theories and practices that she had learnt in the Netherlands. Each society, culture and person is different and this should be observed and adapted to be effective. “But there is one rule that always applies: creating a strong network for your client is very important. When counselling a child, I always involve the larger system: parents, family members, teachers, doctors, court of guardianship, police – whomever I can work together with to positively strengthen the child’s network.”
NGO’s and religious institutions also play a big role in assisting children and their families on the island, Xiomara says. “It might be hard to solve our systemic issues quickly, but in the meantime, our government can provide support to institutions that provide a safety net for children. Once a child has a strong network, the chance that he will overcome a traumatic situation is much higher.”
Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. (American Psychological Association)
How can teachers be informed so that they can better support children in need? The answer is simple: by letting the school know, without giving details about the case. Marga Haagmans (Augeo Foundation in the Netherlands) is convinced that the method Handle with Care can work anywhere, including in Sint Maarten.
What is it and how does it work?
Support, consistency and understanding. That is what children in foster care need most, says James Brooks, who grew up in a foster home. His advice: avoid that children have to deal with many different social workers, and give them a structured program that prepares them for their independence.
“My name is James Brooks, I am 20 years old and work as a Customer Service Representative in the Medical Department at Nagico, an insurance company. Eventually, I aim to pursue a Psychology degree. My primary drive for this is to become a social worker. I want to help kids that grow up in foster care, kids like me.
I was born on the French side of the island. I have brothers and sisters from both sides of the family, but we did not grow up together. The primary reason that I went into the foster care system was because I had an abusive childhood. I wasn’t an easy kid either at times, I must admit – but I was punished beyond traditional disciplinary actions.
I was lucky to have Bregje, a person close to me who I could trust. I considered her like a second mother to me. When I was around 13 years old, I confided to her that I was being abused. My case was brought to the Court Of Guardianship and, based on the circumstances, it was decided I would go into foster care.
I liked the foster home I was placed in well enough and, being an ‘only child’, I enjoyed having ‘siblings’ around. The head of the home took a personal interest in us and helped us however she could. I was a moody teenager, so wouldn’t say I was happy exactly. I remember threatening to pack my bags and leave a few times – but never did.
The reason I want to become a social worker is because I feel that I lacked support from a social worker. I know they are understaffed and overwhelmed, but this meant that I would only see my social worker if I was in trouble. I had multiple social workers during my 5 years in foster-care. I do not think that should be the relationship a social worker has with children under their care.
I was lucky that I had a few people to rely on, but this was not the case for everyone else in the home. When you don’t have your parents or a guardian to rely on, I think it is so important to feel supported by someone who is reliable and on your side. As a social worker I would try to build a relationship with the children I am assigned to and show them I am someone they can trust.
Not having people in your life who are reliable can reinforce the trust issues that foster children often already have. Because people have let you down, and bad things seem to always happen. It is hard to believe that good things can happen to you. I have experienced moments when I opted to sabotage a good situation, because I really thought I would be let down eventually anyway. At least if I sabotaged it myself, I was prepared for the disappointment. Self-sabotage is common amongst foster-kids; you’d rather hurt yourself, someone else or something, than be hurt again yourself.
When I turned 18, I was allowed to stay in the home for a couple of months, due to hurricane Irma. Usually at 18, you are ‘kicked out of the system’ and have to fend for yourself. There is no structural help or guidance to help you make this step. Some NGO’s have programs or give aid here and there, but nothing that is guaranteed or year-round.
Bregje helped me get a job and save some money before I turned 18, so within three months I found a small apartment and had work to support myself. I am the exception to the rule though. I’d say that most of the boys end up returning to bad situations and habits, while the girls end up in a financially dependent relationship. They often have few opportunities for future growth, and are at high risk to end up in an abusive relationship.
Ideally foster kids should have a structured program that prepares them for independence, both in their personal and work life. This support should not suddenly end when they turn 18, but should ensure they have time and help to safely stand on their own two feet. For example, you often need to pay two months’ rent as a down payment, so you need to have some money saved before you can live on your own.
Support, consistency and understanding – I think these are key to keep in mind when considering how to improve the foster-care system on Sint Maarten.”
Leona is a psychologist by profession but prefers to be called a counsellor or therapist. “When people hear the term ‘psychologist’ they often think of someone who tells you what to do and magically solves your issues. However, the term ‘counsellor’ or ‘therapist’ is associated with supporting people through a process. People know from the get-go that they will receive guidance but will have to do the work themselves to make a change.”
Guidance (or instruction) and understanding are qualities that Leona believes can go a long way in parenting a child or helping someone out. To achieve this, she believes in maintaining ‘open communication’ with the children and the families that she gives counsel to. Keeping in close communication with families, especially those in crisis, helps them to know that someone is there supporting them through their time of trial.
She believes communication should also be considered when preparing a child for a disaster such as a hurricane: “We live in a hurricane-prone area, so hurricanes are a fact of life. We have to be careful not to make this more dramatic than it needs to be. As children growing up our parents did not sit us down to talk about hurricanes. We hear about them when they shared ‘old-time stories’. Whenever a storm was coming, we saw our parents prepare by gathering basics like, water, flour, sugar, powdered milk, kerosene for the lamps, matches, flashlight, radio, and batteries. We boarded up the windows and waited for the storm to pass. It was all very matter-of fact. We need to remember what worked for our forefathers and bear in mind that not all children will experience a storm the same way; some will cope well, while others will need help processing.”
Open communication, how do you achieve this?
“In counselling, it is the responsibility of the therapist to make people feel safe and heard. Try to listen without judgment, and really hear what he or she is experiencing from their perspective. It is important for the therapeutic relationship to understand what your client is experiencing in order to help him or her process it in the best way possible.”
But children often don’t know what is good for them, right?
“This is why they are given parents. Parents guide their children with love, provide structure for them, teach them responsibility and help them process the information around them. As a counsellor, your goal is to help parents understand how their children see what is happening around them, and then work with the parents to correct what is going wrong.
Counsellor Leona Neptune
Each child has his or her own feelings, thoughts and opinions. It is the job of the parents to guide those feelings, thoughts, and opinions in the best way possible. They may know when children feel safe, scared, happy or sad, as they are there to help them navigate those feelings and put them into perspective. This is why routine, structure and discipline are so important. Children need boundaries to feel safe. What you communicate to your children is important. When children know what to expect, it gives them something to work towards. The better your child knows you, the better you will be able to advise and guide him or her by providing a good example for them to follow. Children will not always do what you say, but they will always do what you do.”
You make it sound easy!
“It isn’t always, of course. It is tough to always listen and consider the feelings of people around you, especially if you are in a stressful situation yourself. It all comes back to routine, structure and discipline. We all make mistakes and can react badly in certain situations, which is normal. When there is order in your home or family environment, children know what is expected and may be less likely to be traumatized when things change unexpectedly, such as is the case with hurricanes. Research shows that children who have been raised with a sense of routine, structure and discipline are better able to cope with major life changes.”
Talking about stressful situations, do you remember your first hurricane?
“The first hurricane I remember living through was Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I don’t remember feeling scared, I think my dad and mom kept calm, which also kept me calm. Yes, there was some damage, but life just continued. Hurricane Luis made more of an impression on me. However, I think it may have been more traumatic for my dad because he had to make sure we did not get hurt. Again, I think because he stayed so strong, I remember feeling safe.”
How do you help prepare a child for a disaster such as a hurricane?
“Depending on their age, children can assist in the preparation around the house. You can take them along to get supplies, listen to the weather forecast together, etc. If they have questions, answer them but do not dramatize the experience. Let them know what they can expect and let them know what to do to stay safe.
Also, I think one thing we have to keep in mind when talking with our children about disasters, or other ‘scary’ subjects, is that they might not be scared in the first place. Do not project your own fears onto them. Every person, every child, reacts differently to situations – what you might find scary, might not be so to your child. If your children say they are ‘ok’ and they are not acting ‘unusual’ – then believe them.”
How can professionals working with children help?
“By reinforcing all I have talked about here. For example, schools should teach preparedness and help their students deal with the aftermath of a disaster. This is often done through informational classes, activities, or excursions. Some schools also invite people that deal with disaster situations to give presentations, such as firefighters or nurses.
In addition, when students learn and share with their classmates, it helps normalize the situation and makes them feel like they aren’t alone. Learning from each other increases our empathy and gives us different perspectives on a situation.”
Any other tips?
“I like to remember this simple rule: we are not the only person experiencing us; we do not exist in isolation. It is important to self-reflect and realize how your actions affect others.
When it comes to preparing children for natural disasters, it is important to provide structure, communicate well and model the best behavior possible. And help them process their thoughts and feelings in the aftermath.”
Knowing what is happening reassures children. But how do you explain to children what a hurricane is?
After Hurricane Gonzalo in 2014, the Student Support Services Division learned that although some schools did have plans in place, many only covered the infrastructural side. Today, the schools are equipped with updated safety and emergency plans, safety and emergency teams and support for drills.
“We noticed there was little to no focus on the psychosocial side of crisis response. This is why we decided to provide support to schools to help them to update their plans to include psychosocial aspects,” explains Olga Mussington-Service, head of the Student Support Services Division (SSSD).
A school safety and emergency plan ensures that management, teachers and students know what to do in case of fire, hurricane, earthquake, tsunami or other emergencies. This can include stowing away electronics before a storm, evacuating in case of a fire or counselling after the death of a student.
In 2014, there was no mandate for schools to have safety and emergency plans in place. Olga and her colleagues noticed that many schools did not respond to the offer to assist them with revisiting their safety plans. “It is not always the case that schools did not want to participate, it is just that they may have had a lot on their plate and did not see it as a top priority amongst all the priorities,” explains Olga.
She continues: “I personally love learning about and working on disaster management. After Hurricane Gonzalo, we shared with schools how they can prepare students for a hurricane. So although it was not mandated, the SSSD did have a psychosocial response plan in place for the education sector. Although we were ready to respond, the devastation was unimaginable.” In response to the devastation of hurricane Irma, it was mandated that each school had to have a safety and emergency plan in place, in accordance with government guidelines. All schools have to work towards developing, improving and implementing plans.
Olga: “Because it was mandated, there was an immediate need to support schools in finalizing these plans.” The SSSD partnered with UNICEF Netherlands to provide workshops and guidance to schools. In June 2019, all elementary and secondary schools had completed their plans. “Initially each school had to include three emergencies in their plan; hurricanes and fires were mandatory, and they were allowed to pick a third, such as an earthquake,” says Olga. The SSSD encourages schools to add another emergency situation to their plans every year, and the plans will be reviewed every two years.
The SSSD also worked with schools to set up their Safety and Emergency Team (SET). This team is responsible for the implementation and updating of their school’s safety and emergency plan. The SSSD continues to work with the SETs, given that school safety is their area of responsibility.
Olga: “This takes a lot of commitment from the schools. I am impressed by the work that they have put in. The island is still recovering, so are some schools. I know that it has been a few difficult years, and yet there are many that are willing to put in the extra work.” The SSSD has support teams in place that provide feedback to the schools about their plans, as well as help them carry out drills for the various scenarios in the plan. There are four support teams and the members come from the Fire Department, the SSSD, the Division of Inspection of MECYS, and the St. Maarten Red Cross.
Olga also developed an evacuation procedure for schools and realized that she would need equipment for schools to implement this procedure. Once Olga explained her vision to UNICEF Netherlands, they immediately provided financial support to purchase the supplies that she needed for the evacuation procedure. The bags for each classroom and other equipment have been distributed to the schools.
Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is another type of emergency to consider and Olga has already started to work on an addendum to the school safety plans. As the SSSD is considered an essential service, Olga and the SSSD staff have continued working throughout the pandemic. This is the same for schools, who have been remotely providing education and care and now have to utilize some aspects of their school safety plans as they prepare for the reopening of schools.
Olga: “With the support of the Safety & Emergency Committee (SEMC) of MECYS, I installed a psychosocial subcommittee which comprises experts from the field and together we have been providing information to the care teams to help the school community cope with the ‘new normal’. The schools are also busy implementing new rules and regulations in line with COVID-19 safety plans. There is a lot happening and I am confident that the care teams and SET teams of schools will continue to do their utmost to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the school population.”
“Kids might forget a number of things we teach them in the classroom once they are older, but allowing them to experience new things – that is something they never forget”, believes primary school teacher Natasha Ford. She has been a schoolteacher for over 28 years. As a teacher, she enjoys exposing her students to life lessons.
“Many of our students don’t have the opportunity to see or experience certain things, such as a hotel stay, fancy dinner, or travel. I want to provide them with opportunities, despite their background or financial situation. I believe this makes them feel special and motivates them.”
Besides going above and beyond for her students, Natasha also takes crisis planning very seriously. “It was the first day of our school year at Asha Stevens Hillside School in 2012. All teachers and students were gathered for our general assembly. I noticed the way we were gathered and that the access to exits was blocked by our youngest – the early stimulation students. I thought: if we have an emergency now, we might have a big problem.”
So Natasha approached her coordinator to come up with a solution and they came up with an evacuation plan: “We had just seen the massive destruction in Haiti from an earthquake so we practiced various response mechanisms and evacuation procedures for fires and earthquakes.”
Coming from Guyana, Natasha initially did not have any firsthand experience with hurricanes: “Omar is the first hurricane I experienced, but Irma, that was a whole different story... after Irma I remember just being so grateful to be alive.”
Being so involved with the safety regulations of her school, Natasha was an obvious choice to help create the official School Safety and Emergency Plans, which were mandated after Irma. “With guidance from the SSSD and UNICEF Netherlands, I was able to build on our existing plans. It challenged us to look more in-depth at disaster preparedness. We were also equipped with emergency bags that hold various items we can utilize. For example, once we evacuate we have flags to indicate the status of our class. If I hold up a white flag, my colleagues know all my students are accounted for and safe, a red flag indicates that I need help.”
Natasha also believes in involving students in the schools’ emergency preparations. Not only do students get lessons and drills, but she also engages older students by giving them the task to help evacuate the younger kids. “This way you help students take responsibility and feel more empowered. In addition, they understand better that it is important to help your peers, and care for those that might not be as fast or strong,” she explains.
Making posters, doing themed crafts, watching informative videos, making lists and doing exercises are other ways that Natasha and her colleagues prepare students for hurricane season in the classroom. Natasha: “I am sure my students go to their parents bothering them with questions like: ‘Mom, did you buy a flashlight, do we have enough water?’ And this is a good thing! It is always better to have a child that is informed and who then might even be able to help in an emergency situation.”
Open and continuous communication with students is something Natasha will also be incorporating once the school year commences with COVID-19 as a reality. “It is going to take some getting used to for the kids, but as long as we keep practicing and repeating the necessary information and support our students where we can, it will be ok.”
“If every child must learn, then every parent, family, and community must be part of the process, this is the motto of the Student Support Services Division (SSSD),” explains Olga Mussington-Service, head of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth & Sport’s SSSD. The SSSD helps to empower students to achieve maximum academic, intellectual, and social growth. This is achieved by providing consultative support to school teams, interventions with students and their parents, and collaboration with community agencies.
The SSSD was created after government restructuring post 10-10-10. Olga Mussington-Service, as the head of this new agency, was charged with building the division from the ground up. She figured that she “did not have to reinvent the wheel” and started by looking into what other countries and relevant government ministries in the region were doing to provide support services to students. She found that Barbados had one of the oldest Student Support Services Units (SSSU) in the region. “I traveled to Barbados and worked at the SSSU for a week to observe and learn what I could. They really embraced me, and I drew a lot of inspiration from their work.” Once back on Sint Maarten, Olga started writing operational procedures and processes and creating the relevant forms to fit the St. Maarten situation after consultations with local stakeholders. The next step was to hire staff for the division.
Today, almost 10 years later, the SSSD facilitates a wide range of services to ensure that they meet their mission, vision and objective. These services are aligned with the core tasks of the division. Their first priority is supporting students so they can reach their full potential. The SSSD does this by offering services such as speech-language pathology, psychological services, counselling, social work services, educational diagnostics, career guidance, parent and student workshops, crisis intervention, training and development, psychosocial preparation and response in emergencies, special education diagnostic assessment, and facilitation of Labour Oriented Education testing, to name a few.
Students are referred to the SSSD by the care teams of their schools. Students can be referred for behavioural challenges, social-emotional issues, speech therapy, special education testing, and assessment for giftedness or learning difficulties. Schools also notify the SSSD if they submit a referral on suspicion of abuse or neglect to the Court of Guardianship and the SSSD follows up accordingly. But their support does not end there. Olga: “We know that creating a strong network around our students is key in ensuring a bright future for them.”
The SSSD strengthens this network by extending their counselling services to parents of their clients, as well as providing workshops to educators and parents. Workshops can include informative sessions on issues such as bullying, discipline or anger management. The SSSD also runs a monthly parent support group and parents interested in joining this group may contact the division. “Schools can also request workshops. For example, last year we spent a lot of time focusing on bullying prevention in schools,” adds Olga. “When necessary we also collaborate with the Court of Guardianship, Foundation Judiciary Institutes, the Juvenile Department of the Police Force and the Ministry of Health, Social Development and Labor, to name a few.”
Lastly, some might not know that the SSSD provides crisis response. When a school and their students are going through a traumatic event, such as a death of a teacher or student for example, the SSSD works with the school’s care team in their response. Crisis response is very important to the head of the division as this is an area that she focused on during her graduate studies. “We have also been working with schools to update and formalize their school safety and emergency plans, evacuation procedures, and emergency drills for disasters such as earthquakes and fire”, Olga says.
To carry out their wide range of services and programs, the SSSD is comprised of a team of psychologists, social workers, career guidance counsellors, speech language pathologists and administrative support staff, a total of 14 persons. “The necessary structures must be in place so that our students can reach their full potential”, Olga concludes. “We truly believe that it takes a village to raise a child, and that is echoed in our motto.”
Why this magazine?
In May 2019, UNICEF Netherlands and Augeo Foundation together did an analysis on child abuse and neglect on St. Maarten. Thirty professionals working in the field of Child Protection were interviewed. Based on the outcome of the dialogues with these professionals, UNICEF Netherlands, Augeo Foundation and the Child Protection Working Group decided to publish a magazine to share knowledge, experiences and best practices among professionals working with children and the general public. This magazine is the second in a series of editions.
Augeo Foundation believes that children should grow up safely and with love. That is why we work together with professionals, policymakers and volunteers to tackle child abuse and domestic violence as quickly and effectively as possible. If more people see what they can do for a child, we can make a difference for a child’s future. With online training, an online magazine and experiences from the Youth Taskforce professionals we empower professionals. We organize support for children and together with municipalities, we conduct research into tackling child abuse in The Netherlands. Augeo Foundation is a non-profit foundation based in The Netherlands that is funded by donations from family assets. We use this independent position to actively implement pioneering improvements and address bottlenecks.
UNICEF Netherlands supports the government of St. Maarten in the aspiration to improve the recognition and reporting of child abuse and neglect (CAN), as hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017) exacerbated the pre-existing challenges. UNICEF Netherlands’ recovery programme in St. Maarten in 2019 is funded by the Netherlands Red Cross. On the issue of CAN, UNICEF Netherlands engages in a partnership with Augeo Foundation. Augeo Foundation offers technical support.