How to help in Haiti? This is on the mind of many counselors and Americans. I think we all fantasize going directly to Haiti and kneeling down to talk to a child or parent, offering a steady presence that is comforting and problem solving, or applying our knowledge of trauma and disaster work directly. In other words we want to be counselors. But in the wake of a disaster of this magnitude are we willing to help in the ways that we can if those options are not in our immediate future? No matter what resources we have, of course donating and local efforts have great value. For example, giving time to local relief groups that then transfer goods and services directly to Haiti, or giving money to national reputable groups channeling resources appropriately. But as much as that is needed, I know I sometimes still wonder if I am doing enough- or what more can I do.
There is also a helpless feeling that can unfortunately contribute to just “not thinking” about something this overwhelming. Having gone through several disasters here in Oklahoma some truths remain in my mind about how to move forward. One major thought is that disasters, despite the enormous immediate impact, also have an even larger long term impact. And it is in the long term that help must continue and even grow- and without the media and public awareness, support for such long term efforts is very difficult. Following the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City the nation watched horrified at the destruction and impact on human lives. But despite that trauma occurring several years ago- I know our community is still healing from it- and will be for many years to come.
Similarly, in May 1999 we experienced tornados that killed over 30 people and scraped a swath through our state that still can be seen as you drive the interstate. Relief efforts of course took place immediately but one very effective intervention took place over a year later- a collaborative project between our state Arts Council, local art therapy association, and individual counselors and educators- all working to help one small town heal and move forward. In an intensive week of child centered programs (like a camp format) we all worked to express, understand and digest what had happened in that small town. The children created art, told stories, developed a theatrical re-enactment of the day of the tornado and shared it with their extended families, talked one-on-one to caring counselors, art therapists, storytellers, artists and others volunteering to make the week a time of healing and moving forward. Some might say- this is a full year later- how does that help? But the people were only just then ready to fully recount the disaster and truly being to re-create themselves.
Haiti will need our help for many years to come. Maybe as counselors one of the best things we can do is keep this knowledge in our awareness and continue to bring focus to it in future projects, fundraising, humanitarian aid and direct services- for many, many years to come. No one here would say our community feelings about the bombing are “finished” and the threat of tornados remains a constant. Tsunami survivors still struggle to reestablish lives, fire victims still wake in the night with nightmares, 9/11 continues to inform our national anxiety and individual sorrows. So when I feel helpless I try to take the longer view, and know that every small act and remembrance helps- and that as counselors it is a part of our profession to give back to not only our profession and clients, but to the world that we live in.
The other truth that stays with me from any of the disaster related work I have done- both short and long term in nature is this: things do get better. A basic sense of optimism and hope is a value I hold personally and professionally. Emily Dickinson’s poem about hope is a gentle image of the work we need to do, and in part she writes: “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune--without the words, /And never stops at all”. We can never stop at all.
Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family
therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.