ORLANDO, Fla. -- Adults expect children to react in a variety of ways after a disaster. What they don’t expect is a whole classroom bursting into tears at the mere sound of rain or a group of puppets called “Heroes of the Storm” coming to their rescue.
The 20-minute puppet show was developed by Project HOPE (Helping Our People in Emergencies), a statewide program that offers post-disaster crisis counseling, community outreach, public education, and referral services.
Project HOPE is funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through a Crisis Counseling Program grant administered by the Florida Department of Children & Families.
“There is no better way to engage children than through a puppet show,” said Jessica Smallwood, Project HOPE outreach specialist and one of performers. “We’ve had boys age 12 or so who come in with their Game Boys and say they’re too old for a puppet show. Yet afterwards…they’re suddenly vocal about their experience in the storms.”
A teacher in an Osceola parochial school said many of her first grade students started crying every time it rained. After watching the animal puppets of “Heroes of the Storm,” scurry about preparing for a hurricane, the students opened up about their experiences, working through their trauma in a playful way. As a result, the sight and sound of rain no longer startles them.
Since February, teams of puppeteers, accompanied by a mental health specialist, have performed 66 shows before more than 2,500 children in daycare centers, preschools, elementary schools and libraries. Five puppet teams (including a Spanish language team) currently perform in Brevard, Volusia, Seminole, Osceola, and Orange counties.
Children were once thought to be largely immune from the nightmares, anxiety and despair that many adults experience after major disasters. However, post-Hurricane Andrew research conducted in 1992 found that about 30 percent of the children studied demonstrated moderate to severe levels of distress one year after the hurricane. The most distressed had lost their belongings or were displaced as a result of the hurricane.
Maria Weber, Project HOPE team leader and narrator for show, notes that these displaced children are the ones who benefit the most from the puppet show. “The closer we get to the harder hit areas like Osceola, the stories we hear are more graphic. It works because the kids want to interact with the puppets.”
Following the puppet show, performers hand out FEMA coloring books and lead discussions and art projects designed to help children release their anxiety. They become particularly animated when talking about the fun things they did during electrical outages caused by last year’s hurricanes like flash-light tag, board games and spending time with their family. Such lively talk serves to help prepare them emotionally and plan what they can do during future events.
“The emotional toll a disaster takes on families can be overwhelming,” said Lumumba Yancey, FEMA’s Deputy Human Services Branch Chief for Florida’s long-term recovery operations. “Project HOPE’s programs like the puppet show, not only educate families on disaster preparedness but help lessen the emotional impact.”
“Heroes of the Storm” is currently performed on Wednesdays in elementary schools, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays at after school locations such as the YMCA. Weekend shows are also held at community libraries. For further information on Project HOPE, see its website, www.projecthope-florida.com.
For information about performances, contact Project HOPE at (407) 317-7126.
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