Feature

When Yugoslavian psychologist Nila Kapor-Stanulovic, PhD, asked Thai children who had lived through the Dec. 26 tsunami to draw a picture at a psychological rehabilitation camp three months after the disaster, more than 70 percent of the 44 campers depicted the tsunami's giant waves crashing ashore.

Kapor-Stanulovic, the camp's trauma therapist and trainer, used the drawings to allow the campers to tell their stories of horror, survival, despair, loss, grief and guilt.

The Population and Community Development Association of Thailand funded the camp through a $5,500 grant from the American Psychological Foundation (APF) and grants from other organizations. The association selected two children from each of 10 villages in southern Thailand to attend the camp in Sup Thai, a city in the mountains of northern Thailand, from Feb. 27 to March 5.

Kapor-Stanulovic, who created psychosocial recovery programs during the collapse and outbreak of armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and developed U.N. Children's Fund mental health recovery programs in Serbia, Armenia and other war-torn and natural disaster areas, volunteered to join the project when asked by her friend, psychologist Henry David, PhD. Kapor-Stanulovic and David then prepared the grant proposal to APF on behalf of the association. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee funded Kapor-Stanulovic's expenses.

Soon after arriving at the site, Kapor-Stanulovic was struck by the children's unease.

"Looking around, the children's faces were scared, lost and uncertain about what would happen next," she says.

But by the end of the seventh day, the camp staff of psychologists, mental health professional volunteers and 10 local teenage counselors had created an empathetic and understanding environment that helped campers--like Sampop and Ruchet, two boys from the same village in Thailand's Phang Nga province--deal with their stress and trauma and allowed them to talk about their experiences and learn coping strategies, says Kapor-Stanulovic.

"A simple intervention can produce fascinating, amazing recoveries," she says.

Dealing with tragedy

Both Sampop and Ruchet began describing their tsunami experiences with the same two sentences, "It was a quiet sunny morning that 26th December. Nothing unusual."

Sampop was selling souvenirs to tourists at the beach to earn money for his family. Ruchet was home while his older brother went out on their family fishing boat. Then the waves rose.

Sampop watched as a wave swallowed countless people from the spot he had been standing just minutes before. Ruchet watched the sea rise higher and higher as his brother's boat turned upside down. His brother waved before being overtaken by the water. Ruchet never saw his brother again.

"Those memories cannot be forgotten," says Kapor-Stanulovic, the first recipient of the APA International Humanitarian Award in 1999. "We had to open up the topics so that the children could slowly start to exchange their stories."

After the campers drew pictures on the first day, they broke into groups of 10 to write a puppet show based on the tsunami. The activity encouraged the children to share their tsunami experiences.

The volunteers also held workshops to explore the children's experiences. One, for example, explored using metaphors to express traumatic experiences, while another focused on understanding stress-related symptoms.

It took time, Kapor-Stanulovic says, but by the end of camp the counselors saw the children's behavior shift from introverted and removed to normal, childlike romping.

"They had gained the energy to enjoy themselves as young people," says Kapor-Stanulovic. "Quite simply, they had begun to recover."

On the camp's final day, the children performed their puppet show, as well as a fashion show of makeshift clothing.

"Studies have shown that children and youths with strong emotional support from others are better able to cope and adjust in stressful situations," she says. "The relationships they developed helped decrease their isolation and allowed them to react and cope."

Foundation aid

APF's grant contributed significantly to the Population and Community Development Association of Thailand's psychosocial rehabilitation program, says David.

Dorothy Cantor, PsyD, APF president, adds that the foundation was eager to help the association achieve its goals.

"We were happy to be able to ensure that psychology could play a role in helping the victims of trauma recover," she says.

As a result of APF's funding, the association sponsored a second camp from May 9 to 13 and aims to support eight more camp sessions, for which Kapor-Stanulovic will direct the psychological first aid.

"What we're doing is necessary," she says. "We're providing people with relief and support. We're giving them the energy and resolve to return to normal life."