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Making "Friends" in Haiti

11 Nov 2010

A training exercise to teaching Friends about the resilience of the nervous system.We just ended our second day of training "Friends" - trained volunteers and camp residents, many of whom are older people and beneficiaries themselves. The training yesterday at Delmas was really hot, crowded and in a pretty small tent for 38 of us, but it went great.

From pain to calm

The camps are pretty grim places - hot, crowded, dirty, tense and on the verge of cholera and constant hunger. Our tent however was extremely spirited with lots of singing and dancing led by facilitators and trainees at different times, creating lots of energy intermingled with painful stories and earnest learning.

My trainees from the previous three day training all jumped into the water with quite a bit of success. Many of the Friends at Delmas were educated, some teachers, who picked it up pretty quickly. Others were slower but started to get it after practice sessions.

The physical burden of trauma

The stories in the practice sessions where Friends all got a chance to be the "patient", were crushing, filled with so much loss, horror and devastation. But so many were able to identify resources that allowed them to make a shift from heaviness, palpitations, muscle tension and bodily pain to a calmer, lighter and balanced nervous system.

They were incredibly appreciative and began inroads to learning the Trauma Resiliency skills of tracking, grounding and resourcing based on Somatic Experiencing principles. I cannot imagine any other therapeutic modality that would be more appropriate for Haitians in the camps.

They carry so much of their emotional lives in their bodies, true to Scaer's work that the body does bear the burden of trauma. The facilitators are getting excited seeing this work in the camps. We all were very quiet on the ride home, pleased, exhausted and sobered.

Teaching under tarps

Training at Croix des BouquetsToday's camp at Croix des Bouquets was a totally different story. The camp was the last thing you will ever see resembling a "Cross of Flowers".

It was very rough, this time no USAID nice tents like Delmas, only makeshift tarps of any which kind of material held together by duct tape. It is next to a polluted river filled with garbage and I saw no clean water source.

We were in a much bigger tent this time, which was lots better in terms of air moving through, but there was the loudest generator going the whole time so we had to practically yell.

The whole training just felt more chaotic to me. And certainly I chuckle to myself thinking about our American standards of what a training venue should look like.

After this, I think doing a training like this in a screeching NYC subway station would feel like a conference room in the Ritz Carlton next to this. The nurses made a quantum leap in their teaching skills today, which was encouraging to me.

Harnessing happy memories

The Friends however had a much harder time grasping the skills. They were convinced the way to help their older people was to tell them to forget about their painful thoughts and pray to Jesus. It took a lot to try to convince them that while it would be great if we could just forget about our painful thoughts, it just isn't that easy.

When we could get them to think of a specific time that they remembered really feeling the presence of Jesus being with them, and notice what happened in their bodies when they thought about it, then we could use their faith as a resource to re-stabilise their nervous system.

So far, my experience with most of the Haitian camp residents is that their faith has been strengthened since the earthquake, deeply believing that God has and will bring them through this, as well as their lifetime of adversity.

All that said, the Friends were quite attentive, joyful in their singing and very engaging and appreciative. Pretty amazing.

Read more about HelpAge's work in Haiti

Visit Stephanie's blog about her experience working with HelpAge in Haiti

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Stephanie Citron

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.