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Carmel Wildfire: JDC Carmel Fire Relief

Extended School-Based Children Therapy Program

 

The Extended School-based Children Therapy Program was created to provide additional therapeutic support to children still suffering from the adverse effects of the Carmel Wildfire.  The main objectives of this program, which provided teacher and parent training, art therapy and an emotional resource room, were to alleviate the distress of children due to trauma, and to provide additional supportive resources.

 

Qualitative and quantitative evaluations reveal that both of these goals were achieved.

 

Program effectiveness was measured by monitoring levels of literacy, absenteeism, learning autonomy, acceptance of authority, community engagement, peer involvement, and other related factors. The pre- and post- research based risk-assessment tool found a significant improvement among the majority of children at risk who were monitored.

 

Qualitative results, obtained via observations, interviews, and reports, were just as compelling, demonstrating the far-reaching impact of the Program on the school environment, and on the children’s social context as a whole.  Providing a normative, comprehensive and nurturing therapy program within the school framework allowed children to receive the help they needed despite reluctance from their parents to seek therapy outside of school. As levels of violence and disruptive behaviors declined, and as the children's well-being improved, the attitude of parents vis-à-vis therapeutic support shifted.  Parents who felt encouraged by the school-based support began demonstrating a deeper understanding of their children's psychosocial difficulties and became more invested in ensuring their children’s mental and emotional well-being.

 

Similarly, teachers who benefited from training saw their hesitation to address the children's challenging behaviors and emotional issues replaced by a greater willingness to connect more meaningfully with the children. A steering committee comprised of social workers, therapists, guidance counselors, psychologists, teachers and the school principal also met twice a month to discuss the progress of students and to address evolving needs.

 

A noteworthy long-term positive outcome of the School-based Children Therapy Program is that mental health professionals, teachers and parents, who now boast a reinforced understanding of how to effectively handle trauma in the school environment, will be available to help children suffering from other types of issues in the future. As the wounds of the Carmel fire continue to heal, the newly trained cohort of mental health professionals will continue to serve the needs of the community. Creating this human infrastructure of professionals has altered the landscape of the mental health support network available in Northern Israel, particularly in the Arab communities, where, in the past, specialists had traditionally been brought in from around the country to assist in times of crisis.

 

Finally, this model of improving children's social, emotional and academic functioning using an integrated approach within the school framework, is the basis of the Ministry of Education's new policy on the inclusion of youth at risk in mainstream academic settings. As a result of the deeper understanding that parents and teachers have gained, and their positive experience in facilitating school-based therapeutic support, it is expected that professionals and parents from the Carmel area will be ready and inclined to collaborate with the schools as the new policy is implemented throughout the country.

 

The quantitative and quantitative data strongly testify to the success of the School-based Children Therapy Program in helping children, teachers and parents acquire the skills and strategies to manage the emotional and psychological distress resulting from the Carmel fire disaster. Almost two years after the disaster, however, it is clear that these solutions will continue to positively benefit these communities in the future. By reaching the children and their parents within their school environment, and generating a greater awareness and sensitivity to children's needs in times of distress, parental and teacher involvement has increased. Promoting the school as a safe environment has allowed children, parents and teachers to view the school as a source of support and as a setting for connection, assistance, empowerment and a link to the broader community. This shift in attitude and awareness will continue to contribute to positive youth development in the North and serve the community as a whole for many years to come.

 

JDC, which prides itself on its long and successful history of partnering with various governmental agencies and NGO’s, implemented the School-based Therapy Program in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the related municipal authorities. These partnerships were solidified through the formation of a steering committee comprised of representatives from all partners, meeting regularly to monitor progress and address new related issues.

 

Some program vignettes:

 

Life was never simple for 8-year old R. Diagnosed with ADHD as a young child, caught in the middle of her parents' bitter divorce, and relocated 5 times in her 8 short years, R.’s circumstances made her critically vulnerable to the traumatic effects of the Carmel Wildfire. While she and her brother were evacuated to their relatives in the Lower Galilee, their mother was forced to remain behind, unable to leave the area because of her job.  This separation triggered severe anxiety in R., which expressed itself in uncharacteristically disruptive behavior.

 

To help her process these traumatic feelings, R. began art therapy in the Shalva room in her school. Her drawings, dull and confused, mirrored her emotions. R.'s pictures were frequently divided in two, with parts of her body scattered across the page, and images of fire and of floating houses appearing as recurrent themes. But it was in her 6th therapy session, when R. drew a woman's face at the top of the page, and flames burning at the bottom of the page that her therapist became most alarmed. 

 

The gravity of R.'s trauma and her preoccupation with death indicated great grief and distress, and appeared as though R. was dealing with the death of a loved one. The therapeutic team understood that R.'s separation from her mother, her strained relationship with her father, and the images of the Carmel fire had created a deep confusion in her 8-year old mind. Her chaotic life had become confused with her fear of losing her mother who had been the only stabilizing force in her life.

 

As the Shalva therapist encouraged R. to continue painting and to express her feelings creatively, she witnessed R.'s anxieties diminish and her grasp on reality return. With time, R. appeared calmer and happier during therapy sessions, and in her life. Once again, these positive emotions were reflected in her drawings, which now revealed a much stronger connection to reality, to her peers, to her parents and to her teachers.  In addition to the improvement in her emotional well-being, R.'s teachers also reported that her behavior in the classroom and among her peers started to improve significantly as a result of the art therapy.

 

 

Newspapers such as Yediot Acharonot, Ma’ariv, and other local newspapers in Hebrew and in Arabic, as well as various Internet news sources have reported and acknowledged the generous support of JFNA for the Carmel Wildfire Relief program.