Our family, along with millions who live in this nation, are conscious of living on the ‘Ring of Fire’, being at the mercy of tectonic movements and sensing earthquakes every year: some larger and frightening, some inconsequential, hardly felt. In the last two months of 2023, we experienced some strong earthquakes and aftershocks in Mindanao. On November 17th, a 6.8 earthquake struck the Sarangani Province, just offshore at the southernmost tip of the main island. I (Janet) asked one of the KTS lecturers about a special trip she made in early December, gathering a group of Christians from her local church and other volunteers to serve a couple of affected communities in one of the worst affected areas from the quake.
Last month, you and several others made a special trip. Where did you go?
To Glan, which is in the Sarangani Province of Mindanao, and the southern tip of the island.
Is this your first trip to help people like this? Have you volunteered to offer counselling to others affected by other disasters before?
No, I’ve helped in Phuket (Thailand) in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami, and after Filipino Typhoons Yolanda (2013) and Odette (2021), and also after the Tulunan earthquake (North Cotabato 2019).
How many people went with you? What training did they have to help people?
13 from my local Davao City church, 12 from YWAM; some of these already had experience volunteering to help previously for the Talunan and Odette calamities. A few days before departure, we had 3 hours’ training on psycho-spiritual first-aid, basic counselling skills, and activities for trauma debriefing, and self-soothing techniques to teach affected people.
When you first got there, what were your impressions of how bad the damage was, and how the people were coping?
We weren’t travelling through the worst affected landscapes where the ground had cracked, and huge fissures had opened, but we did see landslides and boulders which had been cleared from roads. Also, we saw small houses which were badly damaged at our destination; since these are made from light materials, some of these homes had fallen apart. You know, Filipinos often can wear smiles, even though they’ve been through terrible times; they laugh at their experiences… but during the group [counselling] process, there was lots of crying, [outpouring of] their stories, their fears. Our main target group to serve were students, and we also spent time debriefing parents and teachers from 2 schools.
Our main target group to serve were students, and there were over 600 elementary students at the school we visited, and 32 teachers. Yet, there were not just students there, but also younger children and students’ parents, since the children were too scared to travel to school alone, so parents went with them. I saw there was a need to debrief the parents first, and then the [planned debriefing of] teachers, as well as the students. The area is mainly Muslim, as well as having Bla’an Tribal people and lowland Cebuanos. It is a poor community, with the population mostly earning a living from fishing or farming. We spent half a day with them in groups between our volunteers, debriefing them. After that, we visited the National High School in the next barangay, that had also invited us to come and help. The high school there has at least four floors, and students who were on those upper levels were badly affected, some fainted during the earthquake, it was so strong. That high school school when we visited was shut down, at least 13 classrooms were already condemned, and, although the elementary school had 2 rooms damaged, since it is single-level. The schools are struggling now to rebuild and replace lost resources, since any government support has gone to the towns, and not to more remote locations and schools. So there are many displaced students who have no place to meet now, and they need to attend school on a schedule to share classrooms across year groups and revert to pandemic measures for education (modular learning). There are many adjustments for the children, youth and their families.
What kinds of trauma or mental health concerns did you see amongst residents in Glan?
We saw signs of stress and high anxiety, especially in younger children. You know, there are often many aftershocks following initial earthquakes [some of them almost as severe as the first one], for days afterwards. I was glad I could spend time with their parents, some of them reported high fevers in their little ones, recurring illnesses, so it isn’t just the mental health effects, but because of the overwhelming fear around the continuing aftershocks, the whole body is affected, it is psychosomatic. This is because young children don’t have the vocabulary to express themselves (unlike adults), so their bodies play out their inner stress and trauma, as their mouths have no words for it.
How do you approach helping these folks who are going through stress and trauma?
Praise God, we were able to help out 14 households, to provide building materials like wood. We also gave out some food packs; the funds for these were provided by kind donors from Davao, and a mission agency helped. We gave safe spaces to the disaster victims to speak, to share and to cry; they were allowed to express themselves verbally in small and larger group situations and via different activities. For example, children from Kindergarten to Grade 6 were encouraged to draw, and then explain their drawings. We played games with them to allow them to laugh and have fun together. We sang action songs that were taught by the mission volunteers, and with high-schoolers, we applied expressive dance [for those who wanted to,] followed by process questions; all of these activities are designed to help the survivors to process their experiences. We also taught parents self-soothing techniques that they could do with their young children, so that when anxiety levels are heightened, they can practice them together.
What do badly affected residents need the most?
In the immediate aftermath of a calamity like this, counseling can help. Of course, food packs and handouts are needed, and the government has helped with some of this, but materials for rebuilding are also essential. The government sometimes offers land or basic housing too, but often these houses or land are far from the sea, which is where these folks get their living as fishermen, and they need to be near their boats for security. We also met grandparents who look after and raise grandchildren whilst parents work or are separated, and these elderly folk often need medications (for chronic issues and also injuries from the disaster) but cannot access them because they are in remote places, and have young kids to look after. It is a dilemma to know how to address so many social problems.
Are there things that those who have never been through this kind of situation often do not realise about the challenges for people who have to deal with them?
Many people only see the initial, physical damage from earthquakes or disasters on the news, but they don’t know about the long-term effects of trauma, changed lives and ongoing difficult circumstances, and the news moves onto something else. The situation is especially bad for those who are poorer and have much fewer resources for rebuilding their houses and livelihoods; these are folks who live hand-to-mouth and struggle to buy rice every day, let alone have enough to buy building materials. In order to repair their homes, they have to stop their fishing livelihoods and more, which means loss of income.
From afar, many people think that food packs [and that kind of immediate relief aid] are enough to help affected people, but in reality, there are serious multi-layered issues, and they are long-term. For example, the land is also affected, which impacts on people’s livelihoods and the ability to farm or rebuild; these things are compounded by poverty in this country.
How can we be praying for the people of Glan and how can we pray for or help others going through similar disasters?
Please pray in this instance, for healing from physical and psychological trauma. Also pray for provisions for the affected people to be able to rebuild their homes and communities, their damaged classrooms and facilities (hundreds of kids and youth are not able to have normal schooling as of now). But don’t just pray. Go, get training to help with psycho-social first-aid. Survivors of calamities feel isolated, alone, scared. Your presence gives hope, that there is life after this. Impart hope. The parents and teachers really appreciated our personal help and assistance, even though we were there for just two days.
Thanks, Dr Ging, for helping us better understand some of the challenges that face millions of Filipinos annually when natural calamities occur.