Saturday, January 25, 2014

Play to Heal: Unilab Foundation Opens Therapeutic Play Space for Typhoon Survivors

At mid-morning, the area in Cala-Cala by the banks of the Cagayan River, called Isa de Oro, was serene, tall grass swaying in the breeze and the river flowing languidly toward the Macajalar Bay.
The river has a sizable sandbar island.  There was once about a thousand houses here, but it was swept away by the swollen river and the massive flood caused by tropical storm Washi, locally known as Sendong, on Dec. 16, 2011.
What remained was a tall mango tree, which was made into a monument called the Tree of Life. A plaque reads: “This mango tree saved more than 50 people, residents of Isla de Oro, at the height of the unprecedented flooding caused by Tropical Storm Sendong last December 16, 2011.”
The flood came at night. The following morning, people and even animals were clinging to the tree. The unlucky ones were swept out into the sea. Cagayan de Oro City, the commercial and educational hub of northeast Mindanao, along with Iligan City, was one of the hardest hit areas during the storm. Isla de Oro in Cala-Cala was one of the most affected along with the barangays of Consolacion, Macasandig, Kauswagan, Carmen, Canitoan, Iponan and Balulang.

Isla de Oro a year after typhoon Washi

The Tree of Life

The resettlement area in the sitio of Calaanan in the barangay of Canitoan
In its aftermath, Washi, which also struck the Visayas and Palawan, affected 131,618 families, destroyed 51,144 houses and damaged properties amounting to P2.1 billion, making it the world’s deadliest storm that year.
Aid came and many countries launched humanitarian efforts for the survivors. Help was generous. When Marco Flores, director for operations of the Unilab Foundation, arrived in Cagayan de Oro to see how they could help, he saw a surfeit of relief goods that were starting to spoil. Food was taken care of along with other material needs. However, the psychological well-being of survivors were rarely addressed, especially the children’s, the most vulnerable group. There were more than 87,500 children left orphaned and homeless by Washi.
With Rhodora Palomar-Fresnedi, senior vice president for corporate affairs of Unilab, as executive director, the Unilab Foundation thought of building a safe place where children can play and generally be themselves, facilitating healing from trauma and spurring positive growth.

Rhodora Palomar-Fresnedi, senior vice president for corporate affairs of Unilab and executive director of the Unilab Foundation
The Unilab Foundation is the corporate social responsibility arm of the Philippines’ biggest pharmaceutical and healthcare company United Laboratories or Unilab. With a concentration on health, their approach is holistic addressing both the physical, as well as the mental/emotional/spiritual — areas of concern they say that are important but often left neglected. Their projects delve on developmental and therapeutic play, health in public schools, leadership training for healthcare professionals, health of senior citizen and social enterprise.
Cagayan de Oro became the pilot site for its post-disaster developmental and therapeutic play intervention program called Play It Forward. Playing has long been scientifically proven to be essential in children’s growth and important in maintaining well-being as well as helping in the process of healing.
The therapeutic benefits of play is recognized by the Association for Play Therapy in the United States, helping  “children experiencing a wide variety of social, emotional, behavioral, and learning problems, including: children whose problems are related to life stressors, such as divorce, death, relocation, hospitalization, chronic illness, assimilate stressful experiences, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and natural disasters,” says a study by Dr. Linda A. Reddy, Dr. Tara M. Files-Hall, and Dr. Charles E. Schaefer.
 According to Play Therapy UK, between 74 to 83 percent of children receiving play therapy showed positive change, that is, showed “improvement in the emotional, behavioral and mental health of the children.”
The children survivors of Washi have undeniably undergone tremendous stress, most experiencing displacement and many losing loved ones. Before Sendong, they were not afraid of the rain, but after that they cried whenever it rained, related Susan Colades, a community leader in the one of the relocation sites for storm survivors in the sitio of Calanaan, in the barangay of Canitoan.
It is here, in the western part of the city, Unilab Foundation is building its Play it Forward play space. The local government designated an 1.8 hectare area as the resettlement site, the Shell-Gawad Kalinga Village, where 272 houses were built with the help of Shell, the city government and private donors. It took about eight months constructing the houses after Washi. Many Isla de Oro survivors were relocated here. The community sits beside another relocation site built by Habitat for Humanity in 2008. About half of residents are from two to 12 years old.
The local government originally earmarked about 400 square meters of lot area for Unilab Foundation’s play space, which was eventually increased to about 1,200 square meters. The programs will involve building science-based play spaces, developing customized play curricula, and training volunteers to implement the programs and maintain the play spaces over the long term. 
Palomar-Fresnedi said, “We want everyone to realize that play is as essential as food and water; and that it is not a privilege of children, it is a basic right.”         
In building the play space, Unilab Foundation got help from several companies and institutions, experts in the fields of play therapy, human kinetics and architecture.
Architect Angelo Mañosa of the prominent architectural firm Mañosa and Company designed the playground free of charge. The playground has crawl tubes, a sandbox, a three-storey jungle gym and a stage, among others.
The College of Human Kinetics of the University of the Philippines, which specializes on human movement and physical education, gave advice on usage and safety, while the Bulatao Center for Psychology Services of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Psychology, is the consultant in developing the play curriculum development and in training facilitators.
The play space will be maintained by Gawad Kalinga, which works to provide the basic needs of the poor. Unilab Foundation also sought the help of local universities, which provide youth volunteers for the facilitated play.
The playground was much anticipated by the children in the community, who had no space for play and usually resorted to the street. While still to be completed, the Play it Forward play space was opened in October 2013, and children flocked to it. Volunteers began the facilitated play sessions with the children, divided into age groups. Laughing and doing fun activities, they became ordinary children with dreams and desires. Few people will know that they suffered from the trauma of horrors of a storm. With Play it Forward, they are helped to overcome this and grow to be well-adjusted and productive members of the community.

Postscript: Haiyan
A few weeks after the Play it Forward splay space opened in Cagayan de Oro, the typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, devastated many parts of the Visayas, especially Tacloban City, considered to be the strongest typhoon in recent history with a death toll exceeding 5,000.
Unilab Foundation is said to be assessing “the sequence of intervention necessary in addressing the emotional recovery of the children affected by Yolanda.”
“An essential element in rebuilding our country after Yolanda’s onslaught is ensuring that the children affected by the disaster are able to continue to develop into holistically healthy adults,” Palomar-Fresnedi said. “Almost five million kids have lost their home, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a school bag, a toy because of Yolanda, but what must never be lost is that space for a child to play.”
She said that “therapeutic play intervention defends that sacred space where children can be kids again. It is through play that a child understands, that a child makes sense of his surroundings. What horror, grief or trauma after a disaster that children can never express in words, they can do so through play. As we invest in the future by rebuilding physical structures, so too must we invest in rebuilding what is broken inside the hearts of our country’s children.”
“The situation needs to be approached delicately and sensitively as it deals with post-traumatic stress of children. If not done properly, it may do more harm than good,” Palomar-Fresnedi further stated. “As with all our programs, we are convening experts who believe in the same health cause and are willing and ready to ‘play it forward.’ We are working with doctors and academicians to come up with a systematic approach for the intervention. This ensures that what we bring in is a long term sustainable solution- therapeutic play with a proven formula of play space plus curriculum.”
She also said: “What we’ve started in Cagayan de Oro for the children affected by Sendong is a prelude. The devastation brought by Yolanda magnifies the need for therapeutic play intervention. Stories of children whose lives were shaken in CDO are the same stories in Tacloban, Samar, Leyte and Cebu. As long as there is a child in need of therapeutic play intervention, we continue to ‘play it forward.’ Because as we rebuild lives, we continue to build a healthier Philippines, one child at a time.”