HEALING AS ONE

On 5 June 2015, an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 struck Sabah, East Malaysia, claiming the lives of 10 people from Singapore – seven pupils and two teachers from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS), and a guide who was leading them up Mount Kinabalu.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, a team of CARE officers and school counsellors from the Ministry of Education (MOE) and other public agencies came together to help students, families and teachers through their process of grief, understanding and recovery.

It was on a Friday evening when Ms Foo received a call from her Deputy Director: a team of 29 students and eight teachers from TKPS had been on Mount Kinabalu when an earthquake struck; at that moment, not all of them had been accounted for.

Ms Foo drove to TKPS immediately. Along Guillemard Road, traffic was heavy and she took the opportunity to collect her thoughts. Reaching the school and going inside, Ms Foo and a few colleagues who’d also just arrived were greeted by “an eerie silence,” Ms Foo recalls. “The mood was extremely sombre.”

She entered a room to see anxious families as well as teachers and staff of TKPS. Sizing up the situation, Ms Foo and her colleagues set up two rooms, one for families whose children had been found safe, the other for those whose loved ones were still missing. “This allowed us to better address their different emotional needs and questions,” she says. “Once this was done, we sat with the parents, spoke to them, looked out for them.”

Ms Foo is among a group of MOE officers who’ve gone through the CARE (Caring Action in Response to Emergencies) programme. As part of the National CARE Management System (NCMS), CARE teams are trained to offer emotional support to those in need during moments of crisis. Earlier this year, Ms Foo had, on her own initiative, compiled a list of former CARE officers from MOE, adding them to a WhatsApp chat group.

Having first notified the current fraternity of CARE officers, she now began to reach out to this extended network. Through NCMS’ multi-agency network, experienced CARE officers with overseas experience were also brought in. “We worked quickly,” says Ms Foo. “There were huddled meetings in corners to learn what was needed, then we started calling officers from all over the island – come down, come down, come down. They arrived in the middle of the night. There was a lot to be done, and we all shared the load.”

Over the next month, CARE officers from MOE and other agencies such as the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) worked round the clock at TKPS to provide students, families and teachers with support, or simply a warm hug and listening ear.

Throughout this difficult period, one of the things that Ms Foo remembers most vividly was the national spirit of solidarity. “Members of the public came to write notes of sympathy and encouragement; many of our Southeast Asian Games athletes also visited, and the water polo boys from Outram Secondary School came with 1,000 paper cranes that they’d folded,” she recalls. “TKPS has grown stronger, day by day. For the teachers, it has always been about the children. It’s a fantastic school culture; a caring culture.”

In the early hours of 6 June, Ms Malar Palaiyan learnt that she’d be accompanying the families of eight TKPS students and two teachers to Kota Kinabalu. “I was briefed at 2am, went home, packed and headed straight for Changi Airport,” she recalls. “Our plane was scheduled to leave at 8am; I didn’t even have time to tell my son.”

It was Ms Malar’s first overseas mission. Travelling with her were CARE officers from MOE as well as MINDEF, MSF, SPS and the Institute of Mental Health. On the tarmac, Ms Malar checked once more that each family was attended to by a CARE officer, and she was among the last to walk up the tail-gate of the Republic of Singapore Air Force C-130.

Over the roar of the aircraft engines, Ms Malar spent the three hour trip messaging her fellow CARE officers and passing them hand-written notes. “We prepared ourselves for what we had to do to support the families, and said we’d be there for one another,” she recalls. “During a crisis, one should never be left alone, whether you’re the one helping others, or the one being supported.”

Staying by the side of the families through the days and nights of the mission, the CARE officers found them calm and resolute. “There were tears but they were very strong, even as they waited for new information,” says Ms Malar. “Choices empower a person during a crisis, and it was important for us to help the families make their own decisions.”

Some of the families’ needs were simple: a hug, questions about the administrative details for the day, a shoulder to lean on, a comforting cup of tea. “There was a parent who asked for Indian chai,” Ms Malar recalls, “so I went to the hotel kitchen to boil water and get tea bags, spices and lots of sugar.”

Noticing her at work, a young officer from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “Let me help you.” Together, they made the tea and served it.

“That happened throughout the mission in Kota Kinabalu; everyone offered to help, even though we didn’t always know who was who, or what their designations were,” says Ms Malar. “This was the Singaporean spirit. We always considered what was in the best interest of the families; what would make it easier for them – that was at the heart of each of us.”

Back home, MOE CARE officers such as Ms Au Na-Chuang were working in parallel to support students and families. In managing their process of recovery, one of her roles was to understand the broader needs of others who’d been affected by the tragedy. This meant learning about how those whose lives had been lost had touched others.

Sports teams, language classes, dance groups, neighbours, former students, other schools in the vicinity – these were just some of the nodes that MOE officers looked at, in order to see who else beyond the immediate circle of vulnerability might need assistance. At the tribute site, during hospital visits and at homes, wakes and funerals, CARE officers and MOE school counsellors were a constant presence, offering comfort where it was most deeply needed.

Additional counsellors were also posted to TKPS and, meeting with teachers, Ms Au discussed the potential impact of the tragedy on students when they returned to school in July. Together, they prepared a programme to provide students with the necessary emotional support. “Children cope in different ways and it was really about planning to make sure their individual needs are recognised and met,” she says.

One way that teachers sought to better understand students was through the use of activity cards. Featuring different facial expressions on it as well as a “feeling meter”, this simple tool let students express the intensity of their emotions. Notes on each card were also prepared daily so that the emotional change in students could be reviewed. “This simple coping exercise allowed teachers and counsellors to know how students felt over time, and to answer their questions,” explains Ms Au.

Other steps along the healing process – such as remembrance activities and writing notes of encouragement to fellow students – helped the children to regain a sense of control and to move forward. “As time passes, they’ll learn that they aren’t alone, and gradually lose their feelings of helplessness or fear,” says Ms Au. “Ultimately, recovery is also about helping the school assume the supporting role, and before the new school term began in July, the teachers had already taken this on for themselves. Their spirit is very strong, and TKPS is an example of how teachers and families can very much be a part of the recovery process. We’ve seen the best in them.”