Eastern Mennonite University

Summer 2007

STAR in New Orleans

Vesna HartVesna Hart. Photo by Matt Styer.

Help for Youths to Overcome Loss

These kids have all lost something.

“I have an 8-year-old referred to me for depression, anxiety, not sleeping and not eating,” says Nanette Katz, a psychotherapist in New Orleans.

This boy’s home, she explained, was swept away like everything else in the 9th Ward.

What’s more, she says, “his story is typical.”

That was a year and a half ago, when hurricanes first drowned their city. Slowly, New Orleans is recovering, rebuilding, rebounding - but people need restoration, too, Katz says.

That’s where a group from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) hopes to make a difference.

Vesna Hart spearheads a program created to help youth heal from the trauma in their lives, whatever its source may be.

It’s called Youth STAR because the program branched off EMU’s Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR), a trauma program for adults.

The program’s latest training has focused on the needs of New Orleans. STAR has partnered with local organizations, hosted a youth retreat - and perhaps most importantly - trained others to spread its comprehensive approach to trauma healing, Hart said.

For that, Katz says she’s grateful. She consults with one of those partner organizations. That’s how she knows the needs of these kids. She’s seen the depths of their struggles.

That same boy, she said, also lost his dogs in the storm.

“They drowned. This is what haunts him,” Katz said. “He can’t sleep alone; he can’t have lights out.”

Things are no better outside his home. The third-grader is failing math, like 10 others in Katz’s caseload.

The reason? “Math requires a high level of attention that so many of these kids cannot practice,” she said. “I walked into a classroom last week, and there were 8-year-olds sleeping on their desks, sucking their thumbs. ‘Please help them!’ the teacher asked me.”

From Katrina to Kenya

Reporting from Kenya, Anne Nyambura, MA ‘06, wrote: “My 2006 summer’s work in Kakuma (refugee camp) and Kibera (Nairobi slums) with the youth, using the Youth STAR manual, was received with a lot of eagerness.

It was an eye opener on the need for this training in the region. The challenge of the trauma that HIV/AIDS has brought in the slum areas was real. The program particularly affirmed the goals/objectives of the curriculum, which was mainly to pass on the message on the cycles of violence.

This helped to build further the confidence I had in the curriculum we had developed.

The program proved its relevance in the region.” For more information on Youth STAR, including how to bring it to your community, visit www.emu.edu/cjp/star.

A Healing Spirit

There’s hope for these kids, Hart says.

“Trauma happens in all of our lives,” Hart says. “You can’t avoid it. But we can all do something to help.”

Community involvement is a core tenet of the program. “We believe everyone has a role in supporting youth who were traumatized,” Hart says.

At the most recent training, the curriculum was taught to a group of 18, mostly teachers, religious leaders and community workers, said Susan Landes Beck, marketing manager at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, where STAR began.

The group met twice, once in February 2007 and again in March.

For school counselors like Patrick Tubbins, the curriculum revealed hands-on tools suited for the situations he faces working in a New Orleans “recovery school.”

“I always look for tools to help children,” Tubbins said. Those tools include role-playing, artistic expression and conversation. They’re everyday things, but they help, he said.

Katz agreed.

“Listening, just listening to these kids helps,” she said. “The experience of empathy helps the children heal. Their biggest help is their own resilience. It’s amazing how the human spirit can heal.”

Stopping the Cycle

Recovery is happening “very slowly,” Katz said.

Tubbins has seen it at his school, where he counsels 15 youth a day. Bit by bit, he’s seen a few kids open up.

participants at a training in New OrleansParticipants at a training in New Orleans

“You could really see the trauma she experienced,” Tubbins said of a teen who lived in the Superdome for a few days.

Too often, though, he said the kids stay silent. “Even though you may not be hearing the stories, we’re in crisis,” he said. “Trauma can be passed from generation to generation. We want to stop the cycle.”

Often, parents don’t know how to help their kids because they’re learning to deal with their own trauma, Katz said.

“Families are very busy rebuilding their homes, dealing with new jobs and new neighborhoods and they don’t have time or emotional resources to deal with their depressed or anxious children,” said Katz, who, like many of her clients, still lives in temporary housing.

“The storm changed everything,” she said. “We are trying to not give up.”

Origins of STAR

EMU’s trauma training program was born in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. With funding from Church World Service, religious leaders and caregivers from New York City were brought to EMU’s program to help them deal with their traumatized constituencies.

Since 2002 STAR has grown to address healing after genocide, abuse and natural disasters - whatever the cause of trauma, said Elaine Zook Barge, the program director.

Alumni of the adult programs requested the youth-based derivative, said Hart, the youth program’s coordinator. The youth-based version has been tested and refined on teens around the globe. In addition to the New Orleans sessions, the material has been used in Hart’s native Croatia; in Hebron, Palestine; in four locations of Sierra Leone; in Harrisonburg with a class at Eastern Mennonite High School; and in Kenya (see box). Other countries where EMU-trained people are using parts of Youth STAR are Pakistan, Colombia, Lebanon, Serbia and Sri Lanka.

By Kelly Jasper of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record

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