Monthly Archives: October 2005

Returning to normal

Angela Kennedy October 22, 2005

Changing schools can be a scary, anxiety-ridden experience for any student. For those young people displaced by the recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, it can be utterly traumatic. In the past few weeks, thousands of students have been quickly integrated into new school systems in hopes of restoring some sort of order and organization to their lives. The emotional impact of losing a home and being forced to evacuate can adversely affect both the academic achievement and overall mental health of these students as they enter new schools.

School counselors are aware of the special needs of young people displaced by the hurricanes. They are leading teachers and school administrators in the crusade to help these students — and their families — adjust to their new environments. Two American Counseling Association members who are collaborating with fellow staff members and community agencies to help the new students feel welcome and safe shared their experiences.

Clayton County, Georgia

Clayton County, located just south of downtown Atlanta, is one of the smallest yet most densely populated counties in the state. And thanks to Hurricane Katrina, things just got a bit more crowded as more than 1,100 displaced students from the Gulf Coast region enrolled in the school district.

"It’s a significant increase when you look at our total population of 52,000 students," said Ken Sanders, coordinator of guidance and counseling services for Clayton County Public Schools. "We are doing a lot of things to meet the needs of these students, including their personal and social needs."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent an additional five school counselors and two social workers to assist the local school counselors in providing group and individual counseling on a regular basis for students impacted by the hurricanes. "We are identifying those students so the teachers and counselors know to work with them," Sanders said. "And we are touching base with the teachers to see how the students are adapting. We are also linking the students with a buddy in school. We want to put them with another student who is opening and accepting and who will introduce them to other students. We want to make sure, like at lunchtime, they have someone to sit with. The kids’ take on us runs the gamut. Some like it here, some hate it here. We talk funny. We dress funny. Some are worried about graduation. Some just want to go home."

Overall, Sanders said, the students appear to be doing well, even though they are quite naturally grieving. "This is all new to them, and they are adjusting to being in a new place, some without their families. For our older students, they are very concerned about their grades," he said, noting that at present, the Clayton County Public Schools system has no way of contacting the displaced students’ former schools for transfer records. The school system is working closely with the Georgia State Department of Education to relay information and student identifications to the Louisiana State Department of Education, however, Sanders said. "Our focus has been on making sure all the students are enrolled and that they feel safe and comforted," he said. "There are still some questions on whether it’s going to be Georgia or Louisiana tests and requirements. All those things are being discussed."

To add to the stress, several students have been forced to change schools again since evacuating to the Atlanta metropolitan area. Upon arriving, students and their families were placed in temporary housing. Since that time, many families have moved into more permanent housing and, as a result of relocating, students had to re-enroll in yet another new school. Sanders said these students are wondering when the chaos and disruption in their lives will stop. Another obstacle to stability, he said, is that some families are now being allowed to return to the New Orleans area to survey the damage to their homes. Some students are being removed from school for several days to a week at a time. In other cases, Sanders said, school officials are uncertain if the students will even return.

Though counselors and teachers are cognizant of the need to connect with each displaced student, Sanders said, they also try not to single out these students. "We don’t get on the intercom and say, ‘All Hurricane Katrina students come to the office.’ It’s a fine line we have to walk," he said. "We want to know who they are so we can do special things for them, but we don’t want it to be very obvious. We want them to fit in and, for the most part, they are."

From the moment word came down that displaced students and their families were coming to Clayton County, school officials began planning for their arrival. "This has been a very positive experience for us," Sanders said. "The message to our school administration really was, ‘How can we help meet their basic needs — food, shelter, clothing — and their academic needs?’ There was just the attitude of ‘Get it done and do not put any more stress on these families.’ Our job is to help relieve it, and we need to make sure we prove that."

As of early October, Clayton County schools had collected more than $30,000 for American Red Cross hurricane relief efforts — all from staff and student donations.

Mobile County, Alabama

Mobile County is Alabama’s second largest. Located in the extreme southwestern portion of the state, the county also absorbed a mighty blow from Hurricane Katrina. Now the county’s public school system finds itself in a unique position. The school system is not only caring for its own students, counselors and teachers who have suffered losses as a result of the hurricane, it is also taking in students from other areas who were displaced by either Katrina or Hurricane Rita.

"We have a variety of situations that our counselors are dealing with," said Rebecca Elmore, supervisor of guidance services for the Mobile County Public School System. "They are doing group work and individual counseling with the students, and we are encouraging them to touch base with those students daily. We are also serving as resources for the parents of the students who have been affected by the hurricanes."

As of early to mid-October, Mobile County had taken in 465 students from Louisiana, 468 students from Mississippi and seven students from Texas. At the same time, more than 700 of the county’s own students were homeless as a result of Katrina, either living in shelters or being displaced themselves to other schools.

"Most of them left homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs," Elmore said, "so we’ve provided uniforms for them, school supplies and helped their families get in touch with other agencies for assistance." She noted that school counselors have even assisted parents with job placement. Through their large network of community resources and faith-based partners, the school system and school counselors are able to help families get back on their feet, she said.

"We are actively listening to their stories, and right now that is what they need more than anything else," Elmore said. "We are just trying to hold things together and provide some sort of normalcy for these kids. Academically we have some concerns because we don’t have any true records for the new students. We are trying to assess whether their struggles are something new or because of the storm, which a lot of it is because of the situation. Some have lost everything. One little girl in particular kept telling her counselor that all she remembers is that she swam out of her house and there were fish in her home. When she got to where she was going, she only had the clothes on her back. So we’ve seen a lot of what we think is regression. They are afraid to leave, afraid of the weather, things like that."

Many older students are struggling to deal with having to start over socially and academically, because at their previous schools they were already established, sometimes as the football star or valedictorian. "We are just trying to provide emotional support and help them move on," Elmore said. "We want to connect with them every day. It can just be a thumbs up or a comforting smile, but something to let them know every day that we are here for them if they need us. That’s not to say there haven’t been frustrations or difficult moments, but all in all we have weathered (the situation) well."

Before the schools reopened after Hurricane Katrina, the county’s administration and counselors met to discuss strategic plans and disseminated disaster relief and response information to each school principal and staff. Welcome signs were posted in hallways and on school grounds, and teachers were briefed on behavior modification tips and the red flags of post-traumatic stress disorder. The student body was also very sympathetic to the needs of the newcomers. In one instance, a school’s varsity football players collected money to purchase shirts and ties for their new teammates to wear on game days.

"We have tried to include the new students in whatever activities they participated in at their other school," Elmore said. "If they were in band, we got them an instrument. We’ve worked with Girl Scout troops to take in members. We want to include them in everything that our kids are in. Everything that our students take advantage of — from career day to state tests — they are offered, too. They are our kids and are part of our numbers. They are now our students as long as they are here."

At the present time, Elmore said, the most important approach is to be open and honest and to simply listen to the students. "We have to help every school be a normal part of these kids’ lives," she said. "When they go home, it may not be normal, but at school — for those designated seven to eight hours — we can provide normalcy and structure."

Overall, the students in Mobile County are adjusting well, Elmore said, but she is uncertain about how they will cope with the approaching holiday season.

Online resources

In response to the hurricane disasters, both ACA (www.counseling.org) and the American School Counselor Association (www.schoolcounselor.org), a division of ACA, have posted resources and links online.

In addition, Juneau Mahan Gary, a professor at Kean University in New Jersey, has compiled a list of websites devoted to trauma prevention, reduction and intervention for school-aged students. The list (available at www.kean.edu/~jgary) includes sections on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, general trauma and disaster preparedness. Each entry includes the website’s name, a brief summary of its main features and the URL address. The hurricane, trauma and disaster preparedness sections are part of a larger publication of about 150 websites in the "Repository of Internet Resources to Prevent or Reduce Violence and Trauma in Schools." Some sites include information specific to parents and/or youth, and some sites offer multilingual resources.

"I wanted to provide some resources to help these schools help the children to adjust," Gary said. She noted that both the displaced children and the students in the receiving schools may need help adjusting. "The repository has resources for both sides of the situation," she said.

Other website that may prove useful include:

Finding Your Way – A mile in their shoes

Liz O’Donnell

It seems as though I have spent the last 30 years of my life accruing credentials in a vain and valiant attempt to prove myself. From whom I am seeking validation is, of course, the question I most frequently pose, albeit in the form of silent refrain. It is by virtue of its silence that the question begs no real answer; it is a mute witness without ability to either challenge or vindicate my claims.

Each new decade has brought the predictable test and, indeed, conquest, a hurdle to jump or sometimes even a precipice on which to cling. I had no doubt that life needs scaffolding and a framework from which to build a personal legacy, but I struggled to find the bare materials to fashion my start.

I (like much of the country) watched the disturbing images in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And like the first words and pictures that I heard and saw on Sept. 11, 2001, the news reports triggered a deep response that surged through my body, bending the beliefs I had previously held. I had also experienced such internal despair while visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan; when the light went out on my sister’s life; and when I shook while holding my son after the Mount Loma Prieta earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1989. Human beings flail most when they are rendered helpless.

How easy it is to criticize or to hold armchair assassinations. How much more difficult it is to move from my cozy seat of pontification and do something constructive. I said this to myself many times in the days following Hurricane Katrina, so much so that it began to lull me into a remarkable complacency and the nebulous conviction that because I meant well I was doing well.

I arrived at the local American Red Cross headquarters, housed in an old Kmart building in Montgomery, Ala., on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005. My first fear to overcome had been agreeing to fly anywhere on that fateful anniversary. The second one was simply getting off the plane in Alabama. I couldn’t imagine how I would fit in. A fish out of water hardly comes close.

I was ushered with my overstuffed luggage into a fenced-in outdoor enclosure that was littered with all the other bags of good intention. Orientation seemed to consist of the same question asked 19 different ways. Our orientation guide was both Canadian and patient. Maybe, I thought, that actually amounts to the same thing.

I had never before driven toward a disaster area. I could only begin to liken it to the times when I was a child and approached home, knowing that each step forward drew me closer to guaranteed despair and moved me further from salvation. I had signed on as a volunteer in the hurricane’s aftermath to be productive, but I was still struggling to decide what I had to offer. “This is short-term, immediate crisis intervention,” they had told me at headquarters. “I can do that,” I thought. “My life has been short-term, immediate crisis intervention.” However, the closer I got to Gulfport, Miss., the less sure I was of my ability to console, on any level, such overwhelming loss.

Almost an hour before we turned off the main thruway onto Highway 10, we began to see downed trees by the hundreds. They were indiscriminately felled, or so it seemed — twisted, bent and cracked at their core. Others, huge frames of reference for a landscape set on rolling hills, were completely uprooted, like baby teeth never meant to be permanent. The contents of people’s houses spilled out onto front lawns. So many examples of the same thing followed that it had the protective effect of “normalizing” the abnormal. Is this what happens in war?

In Gulfport there were storefronts ripped apart and facades hanging limp like broken bones. Hand-painted signs warned looters to stay away, while boxes of donated clothes were scattered in parking lots, looking every bit like the chaos left by the storm. Every car I saw on the road was from somewhere else: Florida, New York, Michigan. Mississippi was becoming America’s new heartland — the muscle where new blood would begin to flow.

Compared with the old Kmart building in Montgomery, Red Cross headquarters in Gulfport was much smaller. Most of the volunteers were staying at the Seabees naval base, where 900 cots had been set up in an airport hanger. The close quarters made for more “familiarity” than I have ever had in my life. Still, this was nothing compared to the littered remains of people’s lives that rested on the miles of now calm shoreline running from Pascagoula in the east to Waveland in the west.

On Wednesday, Sept. 14, I received an assignment for Ocean Springs. With Route 90 into town now closed because of storm damage, we took Highway 10 and drove down the main street into some of the worst damage. The roads were tattered, the houses beaten to matchsticks and the trees stripped bare by the seawater’s assault. While catching my breath, I saw an elderly woman clinging to a walker and tottering toward the side of the curb. Her skin was shriveled and gray. Momentarily overcoming her drooping head and arched back, she looked up at us in our sweltering Red Cross vests and smiled. It was the least-earned smile I had ever received.

Instinct takes over when you see heartache etched on a stranger’s face. Your arms extend from your body despite themselves and make random gestures of comfort, as much in an effort to assuage your own anguish as an attempt to ease someone else’s pain. The woman was pointing to a document in the rubble that appeared torn and stained, but what remained exposed the remarkable script of a disciplined hand. Numbers and letters, columns and rows, chronicling the year 1969. “This was the bank ledger from my business,” she said. “Can you pick that up for me? That’s mine.” She said it as though she was the document — the parched remnants of a history left to flutter in the breeze.

It is impossible to hold a mirror up to a ragged life and believe that saying “sorry” is either enough or dignified. An apology from an outsider smells of absurdity and arrogance. Still, I never heard or saw anything but gratitude from the hearts and spirits of the people we served. Service now truly seems like the most appropriate word — the ceremonial rite of one human to receive the sustenance and support of another while the scales of justice are so undeservedly ill-balanced.

Among those lining up at Red Cross centers, sometimes for as long as 22 hours in heat in excess of 95 degrees, were pregnant women, the elderly, diabetics, asthmatics, children who wept the tears of the forlorn and people too humiliated to speak about the state of affairs they found themselves in. Such conditions are inherently volatile, and the temperatures were as responsible for elevating the internal heat as any emotional short fuse. Working through the line in the early morning made for an indispensable form of human contact. We were not administering nuggets of mental health or simply triaging the critical; we were taking down our mask of compassionate volunteerism and touching our own souls to the fragile yet unbroken spirits of our neighbors.

I couldn’t rely on counseling, therapy or crisis intervention skills. I took stock of the spirit of humankind, the unequivocal need for us all to feel both wanted and worthy, and the inalienable right for every individual to have his or her fundamental humanity respected. It isn’t compassion we give as much as an extension of ourselves, a sort of merging of the boundary between where my fear of death begins and your right to life must be perpetuated. I am humbled to hear myself say that I earned and learned as much as I did. It hardly seems decent to admit such a gift on the backs of those so bereft. I want to make it clear that I rarely saw self-pity — tremendous sadness, yes, but hardly ever was a tear shed or the question “Why me?” posed. But more than that, I had my conceptions about so many things shattered and my belief about the resilience of human beings continually confirmed.

Sometimes I was floored by the stories and simple gestures. A giant of a man held me and wept for the brother he had lost. I found myself still, scared to breathe unless I shed my own tears, when I responded to the question “What does it say on your tattoo?”

“Courage,” I said, and courage is what they had.

Yes, there were people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Lord knows my instinct for impatience never left me on those days. But I also found islands within that had never before been reached. I looked for the first time in my life into the eyes of a young man in a military uniform and saw something far deeper than the potential to fight. I saw the sons and partners of the men and women I have known. Fathers and brothers and teenage boys who had fought to bring their bodies back whole from the cacophony in Iraq. These are America’s foot soldiers, the men, women and children who fight to keep standing despite the heavy load that has been draped on their backs.

On my last day in Mississippi I met a little girl who proudly wore black platform shoes. She entered the clinic with all the elegance her 7-inch heels could muster, like a delicate bird on a pair of oversized stilts. Her feet were bare and her heels blistered from the leather that slid up and down her ankles as she walked. But she was proud of those shoes. They were getting her somewhere, taking her places, keeping her dry, making her tall. No bedraggled fairy shoes for her; she had business to conduct and tasks to accomplish. “I like these shoes” she said, “and they’re mine.” After all I had seen, who could argue with that?

It seems it took the giant steps of a little girl to stop me in my tracks, to give me pause and insist that I challenge the self-indulgence of cynicism. I am not liberated from the chains of dark humor that I love, but I will never again imagine that what I believe has even a small relationship with what I might still come to know.

Thank you, Mississippi. Thank you to those who have donated their time and money to the Red Cross and to other relief organizations trying to make a difference in Mississippi, Louisiana, Pakistan and other devastated parts of the world. Despite real and imagined failings, we cannot build anything from ground zero without someone being prepared to start lifting heavy things.