Day in the Life of Elyse - Senior Advisor for Education in Emergencies, Haiti
Elyse is Senior Advisor for Education in Emergencies, currently deployed to Haiti. The deadly earthquake on August 14th of 2021 devastated families, but also destroyed schools. Elyse has been in Haiti since 1 September 2021.
Elyse’s training on Psychological First Aid with the teachers was conducted at the end of September 2021. Since then, the Save the Children team has worked around the clock to rebuild schools. Through community-based construction, we have now completed 11 classrooms, where kids have already returned to school. We continue construction for 55 classrooms.
Elyse’s story in her own words:
6.00 The roosters crow and my alarm clock rings. It’s Saturday morning, the last day in a 6-day series of teacher training on Psychological First Aid. The local partner PRODEV and I are conducting today’s training in the most remote district of Haiti where Save the Children has education programming, so we need to leave early to arrive on time. I’m tired, but excited to get started.
In the first weeks after a sudden onset emergency like an earthquake, my job as an Education In Emergencies Senior Advisor is to assess the needs of children, families, teachers and the school leadership to safely reopen schools and identify activities to bring all girls and boys back to learning again. Psychological first aid is important because teachers can help reassure children who have fears about returning to school post-earthquake. They can also identify children who have specialized health or protection needs post-earthquake and help put them and their families in contact with the right support services.
6.45 We’re on the road. It’s hard to understand the massive scale of an earthquake’s damage until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. There is only one road that connects the two areas where Save the Children works. Prior to the earthquake, it was a smooth highway. Now there are giant cracks in the surface and one section where landslides have covered the highway completely and blocked a lane with mammoth boulders. The driver must go slowly to navigate each crack and use the horn loudly when circumventing boulders to let other drivers know we are coming. Luckily it is not raining today, or security would not allow us to drive through that section.
8.15 After clearing the landslides, we turn onto a smaller road that was never paved. I tend to get car sick, so I put on music to distract myself and look out the window.
Haiti is a beautiful country. Before the earthquake, the mountains were a lush green. Now thick strips of the mountain are like grey scars due to the landslides. As we wind around the mountains, we pass make-shift tents on the side of the road where families who have lost their homes or are too scared to sleep in their damaged homes are living. There are immense piles of rubble where a home, store, or church has crumbled. Every now and then, I’ll see a small wooden cross in front a rubble pile – marking the site where someone has lost a loved one, where they still hope to find their body for proper burial.
9:25 We arrive at the school, which is thankfully untouched by the earthquake. Only 15 minutes down the road, another school Save the Children supports was completely destroyed, highlighting the indiscriminate and seemingly random destruction of an earthquake.
The principal of this destroyed school was the first community member I met arriving in Haiti. Together with our engineer, I was conducting school visits to assess the damage and school community’s needs to safely reopen schools. I remember the principal’s destress when our engineer shared his evaluation that the school was destroyed. He pleaded with us: “What will I do for the start of the school year in one month?!”
Now this principal and his teachers are joining our Psychological First Aid training. But before we begin, we must serve a filling breakfast as many teachers have walked over two hours through the mountains to attend.
10.30 After eating and an energizing activity led by our partner, we can start. My goal today is to create a fun, safe environment for the teachers and principals to practice the skills they learned yesterday. Psychological First Aid (PFA) is a practice in empathy. We learn to identify children who exhibit signs of stress, trauma or other protection needs; to communicate with them respectfully and calmly; to respond to their immediate needs and to refer them to specialized services if necessary. The partner and I have designed a game show, “PFA Superstars”, where participants are divided into teams, given a scenario to act out, and then judged on their ability to apply the main PFA principles to help the child in distress. In every group of teachers, there’s a hidden talent or two – bringing to life a frantic parent; a terrified child or an apathetic teenager. We laugh and learn as each group takes their turn on stage.
13.00 Once judges announce the winners of “PFA Superstars”, we move on to our session on teacher well-being. About half the teachers we work with have lost their homes in the earthquake. This adds stress to an already stressful time, the start of the school year. The partner recommends an open conversation with the teachers, allowing them to share their experience during the earthquake and how they feel about going to back to school. I had worried this exercise could trigger teachers but trusted the partner’s close relationship with school communities where we work and agreed to try this open-ended approach. One after another, teachers stand up to tell their story and I quickly learn to appreciate Haitians’ unique ability to bring humour and hope into stories of devastation and death. Some teachers had been caught in the landslides; others helped dig out the bodies of neighbours; still others were injured or had family members injured as they escaped their crumbling houses. Despite the serious topic, they inject humour by talking about how they panicked and brought all the laundry detergent with them when they fled or mime riding a tree trunk to escape being buried alive in the landslide. Several teachers say that this training in Psychological First Aid has helped them feel ready to return to teaching, which warms my heart.
14.45 We wrap up the training evaluations quickly so we can leave ASAP and ensure our arrival back at the hotel by dusk. In the car, I share the positive evaluation results with the partner: the teachers rated our training with 4.6/5 stars.
I’m thrilled that we’ve trained 92 teachers and principals this week. This means they can be ready to support their students as schools begin to reopen. However, I also know that only 1 out of 5 of our schools will actually reopen next week. The others are under construction and rehabilitation. As the green-gray mountains, turquoise sea and earthquake rubble bounce past my window, I put on my playlist again and drift between sleep and planning for next week’s activities to get children safely and speedily back to learning.