The Project HOPE team was out in the cattle paddocks and mountain homes above Villalba in southwest Puerto Rico. Building on previous collaboration with the Villalba municipality the day was well coordinated and efficient. The municipality guided our medical, pharmaceutical, and mental health team in to the elevated barrios of Caonilla Arriba, Cubones, and Los Chivos. Psychiatrist Dr. Lisa Fortuna was engaged in many productive sessions, especially so was her conversation with a group of children as they returned home from their first week back at school.
“What was your first reaction after the storm, what do you remember?” Dr. Lisa asked the six neighborhood children.
“The trees were all broken and bare” came a reply. “We were surprised and bothered. Normally when we walked outside everything was green and full. Then every day we would wake up to a foreign landscape.”
Dr. Lisa continued the discussion in the thin shade of a breadfruit tree stripped of its bounty. She reminded them that the sudden loss of possessions, work, and routine such as in the case of a natural disaster is hard on adults and children alike. She coached them in self-care and anxiety relief exercises. As a group they imagined a delicious hot pizza pie in their hands, together they took a deep breath in … and a steady breath out. Anytime they feel overwhelmed this is one exercise they can do to reestablish control of the situation.
“Think of the trees that are still standing, what did they do during the storm to survive?” asked Dr. Lisa.
“They flexed and bent, but didn’t break,” replied the pupils.
“Right! And like a strong tree that is what we should do when we feel a lot of stress” Dr. Lisa affirmed, then introduced a light yoga exercise where everybody raised their arms in the air and stretched from side to side repeating the mantra, “Soy flexible, soy flexible, soy fuerte.”
People we meet are evidently disheartened if not devastated by the mudslides and 160 mph winds that ripped through their homes, the professional support that Project HOPE offers in the outstretched country roads of Villalbas is impressive. It is a confirmation that in this time of isolation, of no running water, of no power they can get through it and a reminder that they are not alone. The children beautifully concluded their unintentional metaphor of any post-disaster community:
“We are happy to see the green leaves growing back.”
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