Cy-Fair ISD counselor focuses on rebuilding lives after Harvey

January 9, 2018 GMT

As the Cy-Fair Independent School District plans to rebuild Moore Elementary School after it was damaged by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey, the school’s campus counselor is working to help rebuild lives.

Moore is one of about 30 Houston-area schools severely impacted by Hurricane Harvey. The storm flooded not only Moore Elementary at 13734 Lakewood Forest Drive with more than 2.5 feet of water, but also the entire community.

Jennifer Nichols and her staff at Moore are working with resources from UNICEF USA, Mental Health America and Save the Children.

“It’s been a very long road,” said Nichols. “Our situation is kind of unique.”

Nichols said floodwaters forced at least 135 families to leave their homes.

“UNICEF is giving something very unique in helping teachers - especially homeroom teachers - with single event and complex event trauma and how it affects brain development,” said Nichols.

Students and their families experienced the trauma of their homes being flooded and high-water rescues. Repercussions exist, she said, such as families living in the second story of a home whose first floor flooded, in a motel room or in a crowded RV parked in their driveway. Within that small space, families are cooking meals, doing homework and getting ready for work.

“Three kids, two dogs, two adults in a RV in a driveway,” said Nichols. “It’s hard and not knowing where the end is - that’s what so hard.”

Those stresses impact the ability to learn, she said.

Educators responded well to the first psychoeducational training offered through UNICEF in November, she said.

Moving forward teachers are learning to be more sensitive to their students who will not be the same for a while and what to expect in terms of behaviors and academic performance.

Nichols talked of focusing on mindfulness training and learning tools such as deep breathing to help calm the brain which can become hypervigilant due to the trauma experienced by those impacted by Harvey.

While UNICEF worked to help restore normalcy to classrooms after Harvey, it’s also looking at the psychological-social impact that may appear three to six months later, said Caryl Stern, president/CEO, UNICEF USA. UNICEF brings years of experience in how to respond to an emergency, though it rarely works in industrialized nations.

Stern said her agency is not only working with teachers but also psychological-social agencies to provide support to families with a particular focus on children. “A healthy mom is a healthy child,” said Stern.

Making the UNICEF programs even more valuable, according to Lisa Szarkowski, vice president, Humanitarian Emergencies and Executive Communications, UNICEF USA, is the Oct. 30 report released by the Houston Endowment and Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, identifying gaps in mental health care for young people in Houston.

Szarkowski said Houston has a lack of clinicians trained in trauma for children as well as a lack of Spanish-speaking clinicians. “We’re working to compensate for those gaps,” she said.

UNICEF will work on these interventions for at least a year, she said. “Trauma is not neat and nice and tied up with a bow.”

“What we’re learning from training,” said Nichols, “is that trauma is a very unique experience.” For example, two people whose homes were flooded and had to be rescued by boat in rushing water will react differently based on prior traumas that they’ve experienced such as the death of a family member or a pet.

“The No. 1 thing is to get to know the kids so we understand their story,” she said. Learning their stories through the prescreening will determine the best strategy to help them, she said.

Parents were asked to allow their students to participate in a monitored program of small groups for those most affected by Harvey, starting in December, said Nichols. She’s scheduled eight sessions with 10 groups that each have between five and seven students in grades 2-5. Using Journey of Hope curriculum created by Save the Children, she offers a variety of activities from art and storytelling to fun with a parachute. The program originally was developed for students impacted by Hurricane Katrina, explained Nichols, and has since been used to help children who’ve experienced other tragedies.

“They’re learning about emotions - how to normalize them and how to better deal with them going into the future. “We’re giving them tools to better equip them for future trauma and trauma they’ve already experienced. Everyone who could be served is being served. We didn’t turn anyone away.”

While Moore Elementary had 130 students impacted by Hurricane Harvey, Nichols’ groups don’t include all the students for various reasons including their families being unable to find replacement housing within the school zone and moving to another school. In those cases, Nichols said she’s reached out to the new school to tell them about the student and how he/she might need a little extra love and maybe a mentor.

“Most students given the proper support at home and school are able to navigate through trauma and come out the other side pretty much unscathed,” said Nichols, who also plans for other efforts to reach out to staff.

“A lot of horrible things happened with Harvey,” said Nichols, who added, “I lost my entire counseling office.

“Some had been in the (school) building for 20 years and lost everything,” she said. That’s been countered in part by the district and community response.

“Cy-Fair ISD has as a whole been so loving,” Nichols said. “The community really responded and raised us up and made us feel good.”

Church and nonprofit groups stepped forward to provide food, gifts and other support for the holidays to 25 Moore Elementary families impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Nichols thanked everyone for their support.

“Teachers are trying their best. No amount of support can really fix it all. It is what it is. They are hurting still.”

Contributing to the situation are the unknowns of when people can repair their houses and move back home.

Coming to school everyday and making it happen is exhausting, she said. Moore students and staffed are housed for the school year at the Old Matzke Elementary at 13102 Jones Road.

Part of the training is to check in with staff on how kids are doing and how they (the staff) are doing, she said.

“Moore Strong is our saying,” said Nichols. “We love each other and we’re going to get through this no matter how long it takes.”

Saying that UNICEF works to empower a community, Stern added, “I have truly been heartened by the generosity of spirit of the Houston community. If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud, it’s how beautifully your community came together. We were all awed by it.”