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Battered but not broken in the Philippines

Using the latest in disaster recovery research, a USC team trains educators to support students in the aftermath of a recent typhoon

USC Social Work Helps Philippines Disaster Recovery
USC's social work team trained Filipino educators how to respond to children traumatized by natural disasters. (Photo/Vivien Villaverde)

The dampness just wouldn’t go away.

“We spent three and a half days in a typhoon. You couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you,” said Marleen Wong, clinical professor and associate dean of field education at the USC School of Social Work. “The air was so full of moisture that my shoes never dried out, and the linens in our rooms were moist.”

Wong was in Typhoon Hagupit, which hit the Philippines in December. Hagupit means “lash” in the Filipino language, and lash it did. At times, Hagupit achieved super typhoon status, with winds up to 150 mph, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and killing at least 25 people.

Even though that’s a far cry from the destruction of 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000, experiencing even a small part of a typhoon while providing trauma response training created a “heightened sense of urgency,” Wong said.

Intervening for the children

Wong, along with clinical associate rofessors Vivien Villaverde and Steve Hydon, as well as clinical psychologist Robin Gurwitch of Duke University, traveled to Tagaytay and Cebu in the Philippines last month to provide psycho-social intervention training for children in schools, especially as it relates to trauma in the wake of disasters such as a typhoon.

This was the second time a USC School of Social Work-led team visited the Philippines to assist in disaster recovery. In late 2013, in the wake of deadly Haiyan, Wong, Villaverde and other faculty, administrators and alumni spent a week touring ravaged areas of the Philippines offering training in disaster response and recovery for multiple populations, from children to the elderly.

This time, at the request of the Philippine Department of Education, Wong and the team focused its efforts on schools, developing and providing multiple two-day training sessions for representatives from all 17 administrative regions of the Philippines. The goal was to train the trainers — key support services employees and disaster coordinators — who could then take the skills learned back to their home regions and pass them on to others, including teachers.

“From our experience with Typhoon Haiyan, we observed that schools were impacted the most. Not only do schools house children during the day, but they also serve as emergency shelters at night,” said Villaverde, who specializes in school social work. “The Philippine Department of Education saw the relevance of the training we provided last time, so they asked us to help them train their educators.”

Out with the old

Through interactive lectures, role play, group exercises and hands-on activities, the team taught the Filipino delegation a range of skills, from Psychological First Aid — a school-based universal prevention intervention for educators and school staff to use in supporting students after crises or disasters, developed by Wong and Gurwitch for the U.S. Department of Education — to assessing and treating secondary trauma, as well as ways to heal long after the initial disaster.

USC brought the latest in disaster recovery research to this training, updating many of the practices currently in place in Philippine schools. For example, instead of simply hearing someone out and hoping the child feels better for expressing his or her feelings, the USC team showed how to validate and respond to what is being said, taking the interaction a step further in a trauma-informed intervention.

The Philippine Department of Education is really encouraging service providers to have trauma-informed practice skills.

Vivian Villaverde

“The Philippine Department of Education is really encouraging service providers to have trauma-informed practice skills,” Villaverde said. “We could only give a brief understanding in two days, but we left them with basic skills so they won’t be afraid to engage in these conversations. That includes physical activities they can do with kids that will equip children with coping strategies so they feel more empowered. We wanted to connect this training to some of the work being done at our school.”

 Keeping in touch

The USC team plans to maintain its relationship with the Philippine government and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations. The Philippines and certain developing countries that are routinely and increasingly battered by violent storms will need to continue to contend with the effects, both physical and mental, that can last for years.

Backed by environmental change research by USC School of Social Work scholars Wong, Lawrence Palinkas and Iris Chi, among others, the USC team sees helping other countries as a social obligation.

“We have the privilege of having the resources and access to cutting-edge information, research and knowledge that enhances intervention responses to human needs and increases others’ capacity,” Villaverde said. “If we have that luxury, it’s important for us to share it. If we can make it easier for others to digest and implement, it’s one of the most important things we can do.”

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Battered but not broken in the Philippines

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