Therapy helps Sichuan children, teachers

Baptist Press
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Posted: Dec 09, 2009 5:00 PM
WENCHUAN, China (BP)--Schoolchildren in China's Sichuan province -- which was devastated by a massive earthquake 19 months ago -- have new opportunities to experience full and meaningful lives, thanks in part to a long-term development project assisted by Southern Baptists.

What began as an effort to help Sichuan's children deal with trauma caused by the magnitude 7.9 quake has grown into a first-of-its-kind partnership with five of China's leading universities to train counselors for Sichuan's schools, said Pam Wolf, who with her husband Ben leads work in the Asia Rim for BGR International, the Singapore-based parent organization of Baptist Global Response.

"After the earthquake, it was recognized that China has no training in helping in trauma counseling and this was seen by many as a critical need at this point," Wolf said. "What began with a partnership with one university -- Southwest University of Nationalities in Chengdu -- has now spread to five or more universities, including the leading teacher's university in Beijing and the leading university in Beijing in the area of psychology."

An important part of the training in trauma counseling is encouraging teachers to become comfortable with the hug as a comforting or affirming touch. Chinese parents generally refrain from showing their children physical affection, so hugging is foreign to many Chinese.

"The culture teaches that you must help your children become independent," Wolf said. "This is done most by cutting off the hugging and kissing of the small child once they reach the age of 3 or 4 years old. So when trying to work through traumatic things, physical comfort is not an option."

The training program uses a set of six books designed to help teachers walk through the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome with the children in their classrooms. It also uses a "hug therapy" teddy bear that has the Chinese characters for "peace" and "joy" stitched on the bottoms of its feet, Ben Wolf explained. Teachers use the bears to help children begin the process of emotional healing -- a dynamic made all the more powerful because Chinese children normally don't have toys.

Each university involved in the project is working with a particular district in the quake area, Wolf said. When schoolteachers in a given district are trained in trauma counseling techniques, the university that has taken responsibility for that district sends in professors to do some of the lecturing. Teachers attend six training seminars to receive a certificate in trauma counseling.

"During the training session, not only are the schoolteachers being trained but the university professors also are getting exposure to techniques of hands-on trauma counseling through the books and the bears," Wolf said. "There also are trainers with hands-on experience in trauma counseling who come in from United States and other places.

"This program is the first of its kind in China," Wolf added. "One of the results is that some of the teachers being trained will go back and become school counselors. There has never been such a position before in the schools. This will open lots of doors for personal interaction with students and with their families. Recovery from such a massive disaster is a long-term challenge."

One reason the program is expected to have an extra-profound impact is the fact that many Chinese children are sent to boarding schools at a young age and teachers become the primary influence in their lives. The program begins by helping Sichuan's teachers deal with their own grief, in order to prepare them to help their students.

Pam Wolf described how teachers in one training session experienced their own breakthrough in dealing with the trauma they had experienced.

"The hugging exercise began with an activity in which nine volunteers played roles of mother, father and child," Wolf said. "The 'parents' in the scenario were blindfolded and instructed to hug the 'children.' When the hugging began, it was quite difficult for them and very distant, but as it continued you could see a change take place. Tears began to flow as they shared their feelings."

One teacher who participated in the activity had been buried in rubble for three days after the earthquake before she was rescued. The hugging activity led other teachers to express their respect and admiration for her.

"One of the women began to tell about how inspirational this teacher had been to all of them, and as she hugged her again she told how she had always wanted to do that," Wolf said. "Then another teacher spoke up, a male teacher this time, and this woman had actually been his own teacher. He responded with a very tight embrace of her and said he had also wanted to do that ever since they had all experienced together as teachers the trauma and loss caused by the quake. He had seen in her such bravery and caring for others.

"This was the beginning," Wolf said. "Hugs continued all through the room. Dealing with their own grief will equip these teachers to help thousands of hurting Chinese students deal with the trauma of the earthquake as they all move on and rebuild their lives."

June Lucas is a collegiate correspondent for Baptist Global Response. For more information about this ongoing project, visit gobgr.org and select "China Bears & Books" under the "Get Involved" tab.

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