The life-changing class teaching Texas kids resilience after Hurricane Harvey

Resilient kids
Resilient kids
Image: Ellery Lamm / Save the Children
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Every family that went through Hurricane Harvey has a story. When the storm made landfall in Texas in August 2017, it displaced thousands, killed more than 80 people, and caused damages that are expected to reach more than $150 billion.

Elvia, a mother of two from the Houston neighborhood of Pine Trails, was grateful to get through the hurricane with her family safe and her house intact. But they lost their two cars in the flooding and had to evacuate their neighborhood. Elvia, a detention officer for Harris County who asked that her last name not be included in order to protect her family’s privacy, had to work 32 hours straight and sleep at the jail with the inmates, simply because many of the other guards couldn’t make it into work.

“We were blessed,” she says of herself and her two children, Estevan, 11, and Alissa, age nine. Still, when her kids went back to school and the counselor asked if she’d like to put them through an after-school program called Journey of Hope, designed especially for children who’ve experienced trauma, and run by the international children’s rights nonprofit Save the Children, she immediately accepted. “Events like this always have an impact on your life,” she says, “and I can’t imagine the impact it has on small children.”

A year after the storm hit, Texas residents are still the process of recovering from Hurricane Harvey—including the heavy psychosocial and emotional toll that this kind of natural disaster can take on the human psyche. That’s why a key part of the state’s renewal in the aftermath of the hurricane has involved helping kids deal with the inevitable trauma that comes from lives lost, homes destroyed, and families displaced and torn apart.

Natural disasters disproportionately impact children

Studies have shown that the toxic stress and emotional upheaval brought on by extreme weather events can have an especially negative impact on children (pdf), and that those effects are often long lasting.

Some children experience clear physical suffering: They may be hurt by the storms, fall victim to malnutrition caused by disruptions in food supply, or become sick from contaminated water or lack of access to medical care. But kids also deal with  damage that the naked eye can’t see. As Carolyn Kousky writes in a study published in The Future of Children, a biannual journal published by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, “not only are disasters themselves stressful and frightening, but children can suffer psychological harm from the damage to their homes and possessions; from migration; from the grief of losing loved ones; from seeing parents or caregivers undergo stress; from neglect and abuse; and from breakdowns in social networks, neighborhoods, and local economies.”

Children may also lose their access to education if schools are destroyed in storms. And since hurricanes and other natural disasters often displace families, they can lose crucial connections with friends and family members who might otherwise provide a source of comfort and support.

This damage is long-lasting. As Hayley Glatter writes in The Atlantic:

Researchers found that some children became more aggressive after experiencing Hurricane Katrina, which severely damaged 110 of the city’s 126 public schools and resulted in the complete reorganization of New Orleans’s education system. In a separate study surveying children during the 2006-07 school year (the first complete academic year after Katrina), researchers demonstrated that disasters can have a chronic, long-term effect on youth: Of the nearly 5,000 surveyed fourth- through 12th-graders from areas affected by the disaster, 42% of them met the cut-off for a mental-health referral. Though the geographic scope of damage may not be as vast in Texas, similar patterns of emotional fallout may be on the horizon for the youth of the Houston area.

The disproportionate impact of extreme weather events on children’s mental and physical well-being explains why relief organizations like Save the Children have worked to help kids and families get back on their feet after Harvey hit. At the same time, their programs help prepare kids for the next difficult experiences that may come their way.

Teaching resilience to combat the trauma of Harvey

After Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Save the Children developed an evidence-based program geared towards giving children and the adults who care for them the skills they need to cope with loss, fear, and stress. That program, Journey of Hope, has since been adapted to help kids who have experienced trauma not just from natural disasters, but also from problems like poverty, community violence, or abuse. More than 85,000 kids in the US have received the training so far. The eight sessions are structured around different themes, including anger, fear, safety, worry, self-esteem, bullying, and community. Kids learn to express their feelings to a group, and how to cope with the emotions of fear or grief brought on by a traumatic event. They also do activities that help them put those skills into practice. In one, the group gathers around a parachute and shakes it vigorously as a metaphor for the feeling of anger. The facilitator asks kids questions like, “If you get angry, what should you do?”

The goal is to teach kids resilience, which gives children “the ability to cope with what the trauma causes you to feel, and to come back from a negative expression of those feelings,” says Ann Davis, a program specialist at Save the Children who was taught by mental health professionals to train Journey of Hope facilitators.

Programs that give children the skills they need to manage emotions productively and get through stressful situations have been shown to be crucial to healthy development. As Smita Malhotra, a doctor who teaches parents about tools to help build resilience, writes in the Washington Post: “Just as chronic toxic stress can rewire a child’s brain, the exposure to interventions that promote resilience (including trauma-focused therapy, proper nutrition, yoga and mindfulness) can help the brain to form new connections, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.” As she concludes, “With the right tools, children can thrive despite having experienced trauma.”

In Texas, Save the Children has partnered with local universities, childcare centers, and mental health providers, to offer Journey of Hope programming to schools and after-school programs across the regions that have been most affected by Harvey. The organization aims to serve more than 100,000 children and adults before August 2019–an ambitious goal, given that only 789 children have directly received the training so far. But according to Save the Children, close to 9,700 children have benefited from the various emotional support programs the group has rolled out in Harvey-affected areas.

Elvia’s daughter Alissa, who just started fourth grade, is emphatic in saying how much the program helped her: “It taught me how to cope. And it taught me not to be afraid to cry.” Her brother, Estevan, says that hearing the stories of other kids whose houses were flooded or who suffered different kinds of loss made him feel lucky. He says the program also helped him deal with his feelings about having to temporarily move in with his aunt, whose neighborhood in greater Houston was less impacted than Elvia’s. “I liked how it would help me express some emotions about living with people,” he said.

Elvia says that going through the program actually helped prepare her kids for the worst tragedy of their lives—which happened after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. In January 2018, the city experienced an ice storm. Estevan and Alissa’s father lost control of his car, and was killed in a car accident. That, says Elvia, is where the skills that Journey of Hope taught her kids really helped. “When he passed away, my children were sad, but I think that because they went through the program, they were able to cry, express their feelings, and not take it as hard as if they wouldn’t have had this program.”

Research suggests the program really does help kids affected by natural disasters. Between 2014 and 2015, a team of scientists evaluated the impact of Journey of Hope after a tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, injuring 377 people and destroying two schools. In 2016, the researchers published their findings in Springer Science+Business Media; they found that the program “is effective in enhancing peer relationships and prosocial behaviors” and that “the intervention may be effective in supporting youth with non-clinical levels of distress overcome a traumatic event.”

What’s at stake

One of the major challenges faced by Journey of Hope involves scaling up without losing the quality of the programming. The program’s ability to reach as many kids as possible will determine Journey of Hope’s long-term impact on Texas children’s recovery.

John Bracken, Save the Children’s Texas state director, told Quartz, “There is some flexibility, but because it’s an evidence-based program, we want to make sure it’s done with fidelity.” He says the program is necessary in part because children today are often particularly vulnerable in the face of difficult situations. “I wonder sometimes if our young people have the kinds of coping skills” possessed by previous generations, he says. “I wonder sometimes if kids are able to have failures in life and be able to come back from that.” But he also acknowledges that children today face unique emotional challenges. Kids “are exposed to way more stuff than I was exposed to when I was growing up, and they need to be able to handle that and manage that,” he says.

While not every child will experience the devastation of a natural disaster, many will experience some form of trauma as they grow up. Kids can’t always be protected from grief, loss, and injustice. But programs like Journey of Hope can give them the tools they need to weather these storms. As Elvia explains, the program gave her family “an acceptance that sometimes bad things happen.” But what matters, she says, is “the way you go about handling them, handling your feelings towards them, expressing yourself, and saying how you feel.”

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.