Tragedy in Haiti a chance for children to give back

The world seemed to stop spinning the day a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, the country’s strongest in a century. Devastating images of toppled buildings, tetanus-stricken children in stretchers and dead bodies in the streets can be seen on nearly every television, newspaper, magazine, computer and mobile device. 

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If the graphic images are difficult for many adults to take, how do children feel? When a tragedy of this magnitude strikes, something that adults can barely explain to themselves, what should they say to their children? 

Local experts said the best way to tackle these tough questions is to teach children to give back. 

“Kids have a tremendous capacity for empathy if they’re in the right frame of mind,” said Dr. Kathleen Corley, principal at Red Cedar Elementary School in Bluffton. “We have to be careful not to scare them so they don’t have nightmares about floods and earthquakes. But once something like this happens, the pictures are all over the news.”

Instead of turning off the TV, talk to your children about what they’re seeing, Corley said.

“Don’t have them watch without you being able to answer their questions,” she said. “Natural disasters are pretty scary. Children pretty much think adults will protect them. When they think that adults can’t protect them all of the time, that’s pretty scary, too.”

Corley said it’s important to be cognizant of what is age appropriate when talking about natural disasters, but follow the child’s lead to see how much information they can take in.

“Let them know that these folks are suffering,” she said. “This is an act of nature. No one did anything wrong. These things happen. But we try to make our buildings earthquake resistant …”

Corley said the school’s “tenant of existence” is to teach empathy, which is why teachers have direct dialog about the tragedy in Haiti and have included it in their lesson plans.

For instance, a third-grade teacher at Red Cedar demonstrated the impact an earthquake can have by shaking a bucket filled with dirt and inch-tall plastic people. 

“They talked about, ‘Look at the buildings. What would it be like if you were caught under the building? Do you think they can grow crops? Can they go to the grocery store?’” she said. “Children will start talking about what can we do to make it better.”

Red Cedar donated water bottles to the American Red Cross via Old Navy with personal messages written in French from the students.

“We had the high school French teacher translate the statements so kids could copy them in French,” Corley said. 

Schools, organizations and churches from Hilton Head to Beaufort have taken action for Haiti relief efforts as well. Several churches, including St. Helena Episcopal Church in Beaufort and Low Country Community and Live Oak Christian churches in Bluffton, have raised money for new and already established medical missions.

In honor of Heart Month, The Sandbox is collecting health kits for St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church’s relief efforts. The kits are plastic bags filled with combs, washcloths, hand towels, soap, bandages and other emergent necessities.

“Since it’s Heart Month for caring, this is a great way to send a little bit of heart to Haiti,” said Carol Pfeffer, executive director of The Sandbox. “It’s something kids can do to help.”

Jeanie Blankenbaker, a member of St. Andrew's mission outreach committee, said the church has raised close to $20,000 in donations and $3,000 worth of health kits.

“Many of the parents had children put them together,” she said. “ … It’s important for parents to include their children in activities that reach out to others in need. Responding to the Haiti emergency relief effort by making health kits for Haiti is a hands-on way for children to learn the importance of sharing, giving and developing a sense of mission.”

Joyce Wright, unit director at the Hilton Head Boys & Girls Club, said club members are encouraged to bring in spare change that will be donated to the American Red Cross.

“The kids need to understand that someone has given to them because (the Boys & Girls Club is) a non-profit, now it’s time for them to give to someone else,” she said.