It was the fall of 2007 and we had just responded to back-to-back earthquakes along the sea of Japan when we got a call from World Vision Japan. They were working on a plan to implement their Child-Friendly-Space concept in Japan and were eager to hear how we were able to mobilize volunteers in a country where volunteerism is still in its infancy. I shared how although most Japanese consider disaster volunteers to be rugged heroes out for adventure, the real key to mobilization is to help normal people use their every-day talents in extraordinary situations. As they shared more about the Child-Friendly-Space, ideas started firing off in my educator’s brain and I knew that I needed to dive into this more deeply.
Child-Friendly Spaces provide a disaster’s youngest survivors with a safe place to play, participate in structured activities, and experience healing from any trauma and loss they’ve experienced. They also allow children to return to healthy routines and experience a sense of normalcy again. [World Vision]
As I rode the train home that day to my house on the outskirts of Tokyo, my head was full of how to help children recover from trauma at their level, through play, art, songs and crafts and how they could make friends and return to some level of normal childhood behavior after such a traumatic event. Some things started to solidify in my mind and I realized that it would need a theme, lovable characters, a story, and clear slogans that children could retain. It would also need to be structured in such a way that local volunteers could be rapidly trained to confidently meet the needs of the children. The design was taking shape, but I still had no idea what the characters or the story would look like.
In early 2008, Graham Fleming, an artist and film director friend, surprised me by coming into my office with a sketchpad full of concept drawings. I had almost forgotten the ideas I had shared with him months before. He had drawn whole pages of penguins and seals and an arctic (or antarctic) landscape and we hit upon the idea of creating a culturally-neutral story so that we could use the same material in any country where children had suffered trauma. The theme was coming into place, as well as some of the characters but I was still at a loss to know what the story would become.
On May 12th, 2008, a magnitude 8.0 quake devastated Sichuan, China and we went to support the general relief effort taking place. As I met children who had seen school buildings collapse, friends and family die, and were dealing with relocation and living in evacuation camps I knew that we had to follow through with the idea that had been germinating within me. I promised our local friends that we would be back in four weeks with a program for the children and flew back to Tokyo thinking feverishly how to write a story that would bring these children what they needed.
With four weeks and little more than a concept to work off of I found myself sitting in a Japanese hot-spring when inspiration struck. The ideal method for teaching children is to introduce one key idea per day over five days and then reinforce that idea through activities. As I sat in the scalding water I realized that trauma intervention for adults uses five steps, and we could adapt this to a child’s level introducing one step per day. On the first day our little penguin Pete would be separated from his family when his ice shelf falls into the sea (disaster) but he will soon find out “I am Not Alone”. On the second day, the theme is “Everyone is Important” and Pete would need to make friends and tell his story. The third day introduces the concept of hope and a wise old whale who teaches them children to “Follow and Believe”. The fourth day brings new challenges but they learn to be “Strong and Courageous” And finally on the fifth day, Pete and the children find out that “You are Loved”.
With no electricity and the need to present the story to large numbers of children we decided to use the traditional Japanese story-telling technique of “kamishibai”, a set of cards with a large picture on the front and the story written on the back. With 5 days and 10 illustrations per day we needed to write the script, draw the illustrations and create the final artwork for 50 panels in four weeks! On top of this task we also needed to design activities, games, crafts and songs and translate everything into Mandarin Chinese. With help from manga artists in Japan, songwriters in America, translators in China and many other volunteers we were back on the plane to Sichuan within a month to start OperationSAFE camps with quake survivors.
Pete returned the following year to continue camps with children in Sichuan, became “Pierre” in Haiti to help children after the 2010 earthquake there and was translated into Tibetan and used in camps on the plateau. Since the 2011 disaster in Japan, “Pi-chan” has helped hundreds of children recover from tsunami and nuclear trauma. “Petrus” is now going into detention centres in Indonesia to help refugee children and “Pedro” is responding to disasters in the Philippines, including Typhoon Haiyan. Where will he go next? Everywhere in the world where there are disasters, either natural or man-made, Pete and his friends are able to bring a fun and child-like approach to recovering from trauma.