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Program helps children recover from Katrina trauma


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Washington — Schoolchildren in the New Orleans area suffering emotionally from the effects of Hurricane Katrina are benefiting from a new faith-centered mental health program aimed at helping children exposed to trauma from natural and manmade disasters.

Project Fleur-de-Lis (French for “flower of light”) helped more than a quarter of the 22,000 children eligible for services in its first 21 months and has compiled the largest database on Katrina’s effects on children, according to Douglas W. Walker, a clinical psychologist on the staff at Mercy Family Center in Mandeville, La.

Operated primarily through New Orleans-area Catholic schools, Project Fleur-de-Lis is a joint program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Mercy Family Center, the Daughters of Charity’s Seton Resource Center for Child Development, the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools, the Algiers Charter Schools Association and St. George’s Episcopal School in New Orleans.

Walker and others involved with Project Fleur-de-Lis described the program for participants in the Catholic Health Association’s annual assembly in Chicago in June.

An estimated 1,800 people died in Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded and about 90 percent of the city’s population was evacuated.

“Katrina brought to the forefront an issue that was never talked about before—mental health, especially for children,” said Stephen J. Engro, director of development for Project Fleur-de-Lis. “It presented a unique opportunity to redesign how we do things.”

Begun with a $100,000 challenge grant from Mercy Care Fund and $300,000 in start-up funds from Catholic Charities of New Orleans, the program also has received $1.2 million from Catholic Charities USA and has requested $2 million in funding over four years from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network of the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Project Fleur-de-Lis, with 45 participating schools, provides three levels of care and is designed to be proactive—to reach children before traumatic events “interfere with their educational, social or emotional functioning,” said Susan Fendlason, program administrator.

At the first level, students ages 5- 12 receive classroom-based intervention designed to “rebuild their sense of safety and control,” said Fendlason. The nine one-hour sessions were found to “significantly reduce traumatic stress reaction” among the children who participated, she added.

Children between the ages of 10 and 15 participate in another classroom- based program called Cognitive Behavior Intervention for Trauma in Schools. In addition to 10 sessions in groups of six to eight students, the program includes one to three individual sessions with a counselor, two parent education sessions and a teacher training session, Fendlason said.

Among the essential components of the program are education about reactions to trauma, relaxation training, cognitive therapy and social problem-solving, she added.

At the third tier, students of any age who “need more than we can provide in the schools” receive psychotherapy, testing, psychiatry or case management services in the community, she said.

Walker noted that the program was not developed in isolation. “We were all going home every night and gutting our own houses,” he said, recalling a period when he was “switching between a chain saw and my laptop.”

Walker outlined other aspects of Project Fleur-de-Lis such as the Primary Project for children in kindergarten through third grade, which trains paraprofessionals such as janitors and “classroom moms” to look for mental health problems in the classroom, and Journey of Hope, which offers “care to the caregivers” with workshops for teachers and parents.

“It’s like they say on the airplanes, ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first,’” Walker said, noting that parents and teachers who have not resolved their trauma-related problems cannot help the children in their care.