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A Space to Smile:
Helping the Youngest Earthquake Survivors

Myrlande Derisier thought the world was ending. After the earthquake struck, the rubble, bodies and smell were almost too much to bear. Families were separated, not knowing where their loved ones were. Children had severed limbs and fractured skulls from debris falling on them. Blood was everywhere. The entire country was grieving.

Myrlande’s two children were safe, but they were only able to salvage a few things from their home a chair and some photographs and teddy bears.

When the American Refugee Committee helped start a program for children, Myrlande, a former kindergarten teacher, was interested in working with the kids. She’s now an officer at our child-friendly spaces.

“I thought by taking care of children, by singing with them, by dancing with them, it would be helpful for me, a way for me to also deal with the grief and to deal with losing everything,” she said.

A safe place to thrive

Child-friendly spaces are physical structures that provide a safe space for children, allowing them to have a routine and reduce their stress.

“It allows them to reestablish bonds either with children who were displaced with them, or to get to know the new youth and children in the community, and to help them redefine that community,” explained Melanie Megevand, our protection coordinator in Haiti.

Having a safe place to bring their children is important for parents as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives and deal with meeting basic needs like food and shelter.

The child-friendly spaces large tents are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at Terrain Acra Camp, but there are occasional weekend activities as well. They offer sports, games, reading, drawing, singing, and other educational and recreational activities. And for those who need it, there is psychosocial support.

The spaces target children ages 3-12, but kids of all ages are welcome. As many as 800 children a day visit the child-friendly spaces at Terrain Acra.

Happiness amid despair

When work becomes emotionally overwhelming, American Refugee Committee staff head for the child-friendly spaces. You can’t help but smile there, as children sing songs, laugh and have fun.

But the children weren’t always so cheerful. “We had a lot of children who came in initially who refused to speak, who were very distressed and traumatized from the earthquake,” Myrlande pointed out.

Her own children were affected. Right after the earthquake, her daughter was frightened of the dark and clung to Myrlande frequently. She thrived in the child-friendly spaces, and both Myrlande’s children have since returned to school. Working in the child-friendly spaces has also helped Myrlande. She enjoys “seeing the children get over this catastrophe and move on. And even for myself to be able to sing and to laugh again. I think we all have a child within us.”

Number of people who received health care at our clinic each day.
Number of ARC mobile clinics, each provided care to about 50 to 75 patients a week.
Our child-friendly spaces provided educational and recreational activities for up to 1,000 children five days a week.
More than 500 women visited our safe spaces each day to participate in support groups and skill-building activities, and to receive services. The goal was to reduce violence against women and empower them.
Number of camps for earthquake survivors that ARC managed in 2010: Camp Hope, Old Military Airport Camp, Corail Camp and Terrain Acra Camp.
Over the past year, we’ve helped more than 83,000 people receive the daily essentials they need, ensuring families have clean water, shelter, health care and more.
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We managed a cholera treatment unit at Terrain Acra Camp and 20 oral rehydration posts in the surrounding community, where people with symptoms of the disease receive life-saving care.
What’s Next for 2011?
We are constructing about 2,000 shelters for earthquake survivors, allowing them to leave their tents behind for a sturdy, secure place to live.