Spotlight Millions of children across the country started school the week Hurricane Katrina breached the New Orleans levees and brought images of horror into the nation’s living rooms. Schools and parents were confronted with not only helping the disaster victims, but also helping their own children cope with the nightmare unfolding on their television screens.
"Although [the disaster] is far away, the fact is the media can bring the world into our homes," says Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. "It can be pretty vivid and powerful stuff for kids, especially younger ones."
" ‘Mommy, there’s fire in that picture,’ " Lenna Scott says her 3-year-old son, Andrew, told her as he watched the news coverage. The Buffalo Grove mother, who also writes for Chicago Parent, says her son and his 7-year-old sister, Lauren, had seen other catastrophes on television, "but nothing on this magnitude."
Feinberg’s association has mobilized emergency teams of school psychologists to help children get through many crises, including natural disasters and the Columbine school shootings. "We have had more experience than we would like."
He suggests limiting the time children watch television coverage of a disaster such as Katrina. However, parents don’t need to completely shield their kids from bad news, as long as they project a calm and reassuring attitude. "It’s important for children to know the community and the nation is pitching in to help people," he says.
Swing into action
Although it makes sense to discuss any inadequacies in the government’s response to Katrina with older children, Feinberg adds, parents and schools can better help younger kids by getting them involved in relief efforts. "Volunteerism is not a cliché, it’s something we have to practice and model for our children."
Scott says Lauren is planning to help her Brownie troop at Prairie School in Buffalo Grove hold a bake sale to raise money for Katrina victims. And even Andrew has helped fold clothes collected by his preschool, Beth Judea in Long Grove.
Many schools have mobilized their entire community of teachers, parents, students and administrators to send aid and comfort. Children at Braeside Elementary School in Highland Park began their new school year Aug. 30, the day after the levees broke. By Friday, the Parent Teacher Organization was planning a response that would help the children of New Orleans as well as help their kids be part of the solution.
"We didn’t just have people write checks," says Terry Kass, a Braeside parent and PTO member. "It was kids helping kids, giving stuff of their own that they knew kids would want." By midweek, after helping inundate the school with flyers and announcements, students had donated thousands of their new and almost-new stuffed animals, and made hundreds of art kits with coloring books, markers and construction paper. The bins set out in the school for the animals were overflowing.
"You could barely walk down the halls," says Principal Kathleen Ellis.
Students stayed after school for two days sorting through the animals and helping pack the art kits. By Sept. 9, the whole batch had been sorted, boxed and shipped in a donated truck to a church in Corpus Christi, Texas.
"We thought [the stuffed animals] would be something for [displaced] children to hold onto," says Ellis, "when frankly they had lost control of their lives."
Don’t underestimate kids
Ronit Gliksman, mom of Maya, 8, and Danielle, 7, says having kids give up something of their own and then work at making the drive a success fosters caring in them. "If they just gave up their allowance, they’d probably still feel like Mom and Dad will still buy them things."
Maya and Danielle donated between 20 and 25 of their own stuffed animals, Gliksman adds. Maya gave up all of hers, and while Danielle wanted to do the same, her mother convinced her to keep the two that meant the most to her.
"I’m really proud that, in a week, everything was collected and shipped off," says Gliksman. She adds that Braeside students showed initiative by writing notes to the kids getting the animals, wishing them well and telling them about the school. "We did not suggest that."
"I think people underestimate kids sometimes," says Scott. "They don’t need to understand all of the details to know someone is hurting and they can help."