2014-01-31 / Columnists


Weathering The Storm With Words
By Devonne Heyward, Project Hope

We were having lunch at a pizzeria near Canarsie High School when Bari Langbaum, my team leader with Project Hope, suggested that I offer creative writing workshops to middle and high school students affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Project Hope is a free and confidential crisis-counseling program intended to help communities recover from Hurricane Sandy, foster creative resiliency and enhance existing individual and community strengths. I was among the newest members of my crisis counseling team with Counseling in Schools (CIS) and was workingYoga:temporarily at Canarsie High School while awaiting my permanent assignment.

As the time approached for me to begin working as a crisis counselor and teaching artist at Scholars’ Academy in Rockaway Park, I became increasingly excited about the generative and transformative potential of writing— the power of the written word not only to create worlds but to rebuild them.

In my capacity as a crisis counselor at Scholars’ I sometimes incorporated writing exercises into individual counseling sessions.

However I had the opportunity to facilitate individual and group sessions with a focus on creating original work, both at Scholars’ Academy and Beach Channel High School, and it is in these sessions that I have seen the life experiences of students emerge with greatest depth.

One of the students I have had the immense privilege of working with is Claudia Dana, a Rockaway resident who for one year following the hurricane was displaced in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

“Writing helps me channel my emotions out, whether good, bad, anything,” Claudia, an eighth grader at Scholars’ Academy, said.

It is before 8:00 a.m. on a Friday morning in October and we are meeting in the Project Hope office at Scholars’ to discuss the Sandy experiences which have inspired the poems she has written in our sessions. “Writing helps me vent a lot. If I’m confused, it helps me make sense of things.”

In prior meetings, we had worked on a piece where Claudia had begun to describe her experience of displacement both literal and figurativeimmediately following the storm.

Recalling the events of the night of October 29th, 2012, Claudia said “We didn’t evacuate. We ran up to the atticwe have one floor- when the water started covering the toilet and sinks.”

For the next few days, Claudia, her older sister, Emily, and their parents stayed in an upstairs bedroom at a neighbor’s house. She describes being in what she and other Rockaway residents have come to refer to as “the Rockaway haze.” “It was almost like, oh my God, we survived this.”

Claudia’s family’s home was completely destroyed in the storm, and her maternal grandmother, whom she and her sister call “Gram,” invited her family to live in her home in Sheepshead Bay while their home was rebuilt.

When Claudia moved in with her grandmother in November of 2012, she did not expect the rebuilding to take a year. Nor did she anticipate the adjustments in her daily routine which would ultimately change her outlook on life.

The poem below describes Claudia’s experiences in the days, weeks and months following the hurricane:

Untitled #3

It was all unfamiliar to me
Thrust from what I thought was my
And left to live in another reality

When sounds in the night go from
crickets to street fights
Disorientation and fear become the
Afraid to go outside at night,
When you used to go and play,
And familiar faces fade away,
Waves of confusion crash over you,
They hold you down.
They make you stay.

In this change,
What you don’t know will hurt you.
These adjustments,
This new life,
It can take
But one thing is for certain:
It will happen again.

When asked how the storm and its aftermath have changed her, Claudia’s reply is nuanced and insightful. “I’m more mature than I probably should be. I know more about FEMA and the Red Cross than any 12-year old should. I’m not sure if I’m a better person, but I came out wiser. I may not be as nice of a person, but I know more.”

Resilience is the ability to meet a challenge and to use the life experience it provides to grow. Claudia Dana has emerged from the “Rockaway haze” and her experience of displacement, relocation, and returning home with greater wisdom and maturity— emotional and psychological strengths which will prove a resource to her throughout her teenage years and into adulthood. I am happy to have helped her in the process.

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