New York Life | November 5, 2019
The floodwaters have receded, but the trauma remains. Two years after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, many people are still suffering. The New York Life Foundation is helping to make a positive difference.
The System for Education Empowerment and Success (SEDES) was one of 16 non-profit, community-based organizations to receive grants to continue their work in communities affected by disasters in 2017 and early 2018. These one-time grants are part of a new program, "Building Resilience in the Face of Disaster," were jointly operated by New York Life and the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities with the goal of providing long-term emotional and mental health services and support for communities that have faced large-scale tragic events.
The SEDES program helps at-risk young adults and low-income families affected by disasters such as Hurricane Harvey to rebuild their lives by teaching them how to manage their stress and trauma. SEDES has helped 31 people, and referred 54 to other Hurricane Harvey aftermath recovery programs. The program has helped to reduce participants’ trauma levels by 71 per cent while increasing their motivation and resilience by 80 percent, and their disaster readiness by 92 percent. But how does SEDES do it? We spoke to a SEDES counsellor and a program participant to find out.
University of Houston psychology graduate Najwa Herren is passionate about serving vulnerable communities. As a SEDES counsellor on the Hurricane Harvey program, she teaches young people to be resilient in the face of disaster by focusing on their own healing. She explains:
“The program is designed for the participants to share their situations in a safe place without cross-talk; thus, they learn as a group that they are not alone in their situation; this safe environment enables them to be honest with themselves and break their denial.”
However, Najwa faces challenges from the start. “Some young adults are aware that they need help; whereas, others are very confused and unaware of their situation,” she says. “When they realize they need help, when they emerge from their denial, when they accept that they have a problem that needs to be addressed, that is when the work begins.”
Najwa’s work includes teaching participants that emotions such as denial, as well as guilt and shame, anger, fear, and blame - of both themselves and others - and a crisis of faith in their values and beliefs, are all normal and part of their grieving process.
Najwa teaches them resilience by managing these emotions, and in a number of other ways including: setting positive goals, visualizing a brighter future, learning to live in the present, valuing themselves over their possessions, and to be “prepared but not afraid,” in case such a disaster happens again. She also teaches relaxation techniques such as meditation, and even laughter yoga.
Najwa plays down her role as healer. “It is up to them. I am only a facilitator in their healing process. I provide them with different tools for them to learn different ways to cope with their stress. My personal wish is to bring them to a peaceful place where they feel understood, safe, and with hope, where they can discover new horizons and have a new outlook in life.”
Najwa is herself a survivor, of a “violent home,” who lost many family members to an earthquake in her hometown of Mexico City. Her own experiences inspired her to help others. Which is challenging but, she says, “People continue to amaze me, especially young adults. They are so strong. Despite their trauma, they are willing to do what it takes to heal, learn, and continue their path. The path is wide enough for anyone who wishes to walk on it.”
There were months of depression, but I am back on my feet, and ready to pursue my dreams. I learned that I am stronger than a storm!”
-Samantha Deras Garcia
27-year-old Samantha Deras Garcia walked that path. Samantha moved to Houston from Honduras with her father when she was 14. After graduating from high school, she planned to go to college but due to family problems was left in charge of her two sisters, Asanthy, 15 and Ashly, 11. She was just 18.
“My life changed completely. I suddenly became a ‘single mother’. I wanted my sisters to graduate from high school and go to college. I had to work hard to pay rent and bring food to the table. There were years of very hard work before finding a certain stability. Just when I was thinking of going back to college myself, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. Everything I’d built in the past years was taken by the storm.”
Samantha’s apartment flooded. She lost all her belongings. She went to stay with family, then rented, but struggled to make ends meet. She had debts. She was having nightmares. “I was trying to recover from the hurricane, but I was very depressed. I’d lost everything. I had to begin again. And I was in charge of my two sisters. It was too much for me,” she recalls.
Then Najwa called.
“I honestly didn’t feel that the program was for me,” says Samantha. "I knew that I was depressed and very anxious but I thought it was because of the economic issues I was dealing with.”
But she went. And in that first session, something changed. She was “surprised” to find that she had the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “That was huge, I was able to connect all of the events I’d suffered during and after the disaster to my current feelings, and how they were affecting my job and my personal life. I realized that I wanted my life back, I realized that Harvey not only took my belongings but also took my dreams.”
So, she went back.
She says the most difficult part was her “negative self-talk” but that Najwa “worked very hard with me and helped me with my anxiety”. She learnt that “it is ok to be happy as well as it is ok to be sad or mad” and that “life comes with unexpected situations that are out of our control, but I am in control of myself”.
Thanks to SEDES, and its counsellors like Najwa, Samantha has not only “found that there are many people willing to help me and that there are many resources in the community that could assist me,” but she also learned to help herself along the path to resilience.
“There were months of depression, but I am back on my feet, and ready to pursue my dreams. I learned that I am stronger than a storm!”
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