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Pastor helps Haitian children cope with grief

 
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3:00 P.M. EST June 13, 2011


Teachers in rural Les Cayes, Haiti, work one-on-one with students helping them deal with their emotions about the 2010 earthquake.  The Rev. Gordon Schleicher, a retired United Methodist pastor and grief counselor, trained the teachers to help the children using art therapy.  Web-only photos courtesy of the Rev. Gordon Schleicher.
Teachers in rural Les Cayes, Haiti, work one-on-one with students helping them deal with their emotions about the 2010 earthquake. The Rev. Gordon Schleicher, a retired United Methodist pastor and grief counselor, trained the teachers to help the children using art therapy. Web-only photos courtesy of the Rev. Gordon Schleicher.

The Rev. Gordon Schleicher came back from Haiti with 91 pictures of grief drawn by children who witnessed death and dismemberment of family and friends during the 2010 earthquake.

Schleicher, a retired United Methodist pastor and a trained grief counselor, went to the earthquake-damaged country earlier this year with a purpose. He wanted to encourage the youngest witnesses to the country’s devastation to express their feelings so they could start to heal from the trauma.

“From my experience as a grief counselor, children all over need to be able to share their experience and be reassured that they didn't cause the event nor did God will for their loved ones to die,” he said. They need to know it is OK to express their feelings and that there are people who will listen and care for them, he added.

The Methodist Church of Haiti understands that need and asked Schleicher to provide bereavement training to Haitian teachers. During 10 days early in February, he visited four schools in villages near Les Cayes on Haiti’s southern coast.

Most of the people in Les Cayes are without homes, he said. More than 300,000 people in Haiti died – half of them children – and scores of people were severely injured. Many of the children have seen death and dismemberment first-hand.

Schleicher and Ellen Coulter, a retired nurse who has worked in the mental health community with children, taught art therapy to Haitian teachers.

“My Haiti contact arranged for 86 teachers from four rural schools to take part. I met with the whole group on Friday and with an interpreter explained grief and the resulting emotional and physical reactions to death,” he said.

After learning the technique, the teachers went to their classrooms and returned with students. The teachers asked the students to draw a picture of their experience on Jan. 12, 2010, the day the quake occurred.

The teachers worked one-on-one with students and as the students drew, the teachers wrote down their stories.

One child drew a picture of a man with one arm and one leg. “My cousin lost his arm and leg during the quake. He is the best cousin I’ve ever had. I am so sad,” the child said.


A child’s grief over the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake is expressed in a drawing.
A child’s grief over the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake is expressed in a drawing.

Another child drew a person with no arms and said, “The house collapsed on my cousin. He lost both his arms and died shortly afterward. I am very sad and was depressed for weeks afterward.”

Schleicher said many of the children still have nightmares and are fearful of every storm.

Their grief comes through in their drawings and stories.

“My brother and I were at home when the earthquake struck on Jan. 12, 2010. I escaped but the house fell on my brother and he died,” said a young student.

One child drew a picture of a family lying on the floor of their house. “My mother died in our collapsed home during the earthquake,” she said.

‘Expressing one’s grief is critical’

Giving the children a chance to tell their stories is significant, Schleicher said. Many of the teachers have only a two-year high school education and they teach by rote – students don’t ask questions but repeat back what their teachers say.

“The training encouraged children to speak one-on-one with a caring teacher and in return have a teacher listen and offer a caring presence,” Schleicher said.


Eighty-six teachers from four rural schools gather for lessons in bereavement training.
Eighty-six teachers from four rural schools gather for lessons in bereavement training.

Schleicher first visited Haiti 10 years ago as part of a Volunteer in Mission team that built a village church in the hills outside Jeremie. He has been to Haiti twice since the earthquake.

The Rev. Virginia Bell, a United Methodist pastor and missionary, asked him to come to Les Cayes. She and her husband spend two three-month periods there each year hosting mission volunteers and other work teams, he explained.

Schleicher, a member of University United Methodist in East Lansing, Mich., and Coulter, a member of Owosso (Mich.) First United Methodist Church, paid most of their expenses. Their churches contributed about one-third of the $4,200 trip.

Schleicher, a retired ordained pastor who served local churches in the Detroit Annual (regional) Conference for 23 years, has been serving as a chaplain/bereavement counselor for McLaren Hospice, Davison, Mich., for the past four years.

He serves as the mission and outreach person for his church and will teach the Haiti study at the West Michigan Conference School of Christian Mission later this year.

He knows the importance of listening.

Haitian children have little opportunity to express themselves, he said. “Expressing one’s grief is critical in the healing process.”

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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