“Do something that makes you happy”, says Elmo

There’s an expectant air as 100 children in neat navy uniforms gather in a large white tent on the grounds of their destroyed school in Ra province, Fiji. Some look apprehensive, others just curious, as a teacher explains there are some visitors here today. Other teachers and Fiji Red Cross volunteers crowd into the back, not knowing what to expect, when suddenly the front row, and then the whole tent, erupts in squeals of delight.

A furry red head is peeking around the side of the tent, and puppeteer Chris Lynch tells the children if they want to see Elmo they have to wake him up. “Wake up Elmo!”, they yell, louder and louder until gradually the whole body of the Sesame Street monster appears.

What follows is half an hour of interactive entertainment and belly laughs, with Elmo playing the fool and giving the children subtle messages about how to keep safe and healthy during and after an emergency like Tropical Cyclone Winston.

“Since the cyclone, whenever it’s windy or it rains, the children get scared and sometimes they run. They just take off –across the road, the river, in a panic just trying to get home. The teacher will look around and they’re all gone,” says Marica Kepa, health coordinator for Fiji Red Cross.

Ms Kepa has selected some of the hardest hit schools for the puppet visits, and says two months on from the cyclone, some children have still not spoken or smiled. She’s hoping today might be a turning point.

In his trademark squeaky voice, Elmo is telling the children, “the wind and the rain is a normal part of life in Fiji. When it happens, you don’t need to run. Just stay with your teacher because your teacher knows what to do”. He also reminds them not to swim in floodwater, “because it’s dirty and might make you sick”.

And he gives the children permission to be children again, by telling them that when they feel sad they should, “do something that makes you happy – play with your friends, help your family, draw or dance – ‘Elmo loves to dance!’.” He invites the kids to tickle his tummy, and his resultant high pitched giggle sets the whole tent off again, teachers and children doubling over in laughter.

Kids from some of the hardest hit areas enjoy a visit from Elmo

Fiji Red Cross

How puppets can help kids open up

Afterwards, Vunikavikaloa Arya School’s head teacher Asishwar Prasad is beaming. “That is just what I wanted,” he smiles. “A lot of these children are still scared. The experience they’ve gone through, hiding in cupboards for 3 hours, the storm, these are still in their minds and heart.

“They’re in the classroom physically but mentally they’re not. Some are still not talking. But you can see this has changed their mood. A new space in their minds has been created. And they’ll go home and talk to their parents about seeing a man with a puppet, creating a new topic of conversation in the villages as well.”

He says the health and safety messaging was an added bonus. “The children listened to the puppet where they may not have listened to a teacher or parent. They were concentrating. In the future they will know what to do,” Mr Prasad says.

Elmo and his friends visit three more schools in the days that follow, and each time the teachers give similar feedback.

At Penang Sangam Primary School, head teacher Rajesh Kumar says 95 per cent of teachers and students lost their houses, and many have also lost their confidence.

“The show has brought some happiness to the children. I saw my teachers enjoying it too. The children were very engaged and actively participating. Their minds have been freshened and they’re more energised and more motivated towards learning,” Mr Kumar says.

Drauniivi Primary School head teacher Shabana Jalim echoes his sentiments. “We’ve been doing trauma counselling through the Ministry of Education but there are three or four students from each year who are still traumatised. They’re lost in the classroom,” Mrs Jalim says.

“But this show was just marvellous because they enjoyed every moment. Usually they’re bored within 10 minutes. I was surprised how they responded, it was just wonderful.”

While in Fiji puppeteer Chris Lynch trained a dozen Fiji Red Cross staff and volunteers in puppetry so they can continue to provide this kind of psychosocial support to children affected by Tropical Cyclone Winston.