Several years in a row the Ukrainian Youth Association (CYM) organizes charity summer camps (blahodiinyi tabir) for the Ukrainian children affected by the war in the East of Ukraine. These camps are for children of Ukrainian defenders in the ATO zone (now JFO), internally displaced (IDP) children and children who live close to the front line. Being an IDP myself and a graduate social work student I understand the possible long-term effects of traumatic events on families and children, especially those who have survived the war or live through it daily. The more I learn about the CYM charity camp and CYM activities in general, the more I realize how important these activities are for mental and physical health, resiliency and overall wellbeing of our children, and thus of Ukraine’s future. As a participant of the last year charity camp “The Tree of Life” I would like to share some insights from a social worker’s perspective and explain why it is highly important to continue this work with children.
Stresses are normal part of our life, however, if the level of stress is above the capacity of our organism to cope with it, the effects of the stress become toxic and profoundly affect our mental and physical health, our ability to think logically and connect with other people (Van der Kolk, 1994). According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study (Felitti, et. al.,1998), people who have experienced toxic stress in childhood live lees and have various mental and physical health problems, including chronic health issues. It is important to note that in conditions of war the entire family and community systems are disrupted, parents become overwhelmed with surviving and children may be neglected and/or experience secondary trauma, domestic emotional and/or physical violence in addition to stresses of adaptation in the new environment. Children of military members with combat experiences might grow up with similar challenges in the family. However, the good news is that brain has a fantastic capacity for neuroplasticity, or in other words – the ability to regenerate and adapt. This means that if provided proper supports, children may overcome toxic effects of trauma and become even more resilient (Van der Kolk, 2014).
The next question here is what kind of services are needed to provide those necessary supports for children? According to the latest research on family and children resiliency the support systems operate on multiple levels. They include individual characteristics of a person, personal identity, supports on individual level, family, neighbourhood, community, school, the society and social supports systems, social and cultural values of the society, political and socioeconomic conditions (Bronfenbrenner, 1994; Ungar, Ghazinour & Richter, 2013). In terms of work with on individual level, it is very important to work holistically with body, mind, spirituality, emotions, social connections and intellectual realms of a person (Van der Kolk, 2014; University at Buffalo, School of Social Work). To my astonishment, CYM summer camps activities touch upon every aspect described above (Ungar, Ghazinour, & Richter, 2013).
CYM charity camp activities reflect on almost all aspects of personal and collective healing. First few days the activities in the camp 2017 were devoted to learning more about each other, exchange backgrounds and peculiarities of each oblast the participants were coming from. All together we were learning more about selves, our values and identities. We were also discovering our roots through drawing family trees, discussed the importance of connections in the family, with our ancestors, our culture and developing civil society where everyone is better off if everyone cares. Every evening we had a candle exercise which helped the participants to give feedback and share emotions about the day. These activities are very important in terms of defining one’s identity, developing sense of belonging in the group and in the society and meaning in the circumstances these children have gone through. They also learn to self-reflect and name their feelings, which is a very important life skill.
Structure, routine and rituals are very important for grounding and emotional regulation; and the summer camp schedule, precise timing of activities play this role. The structure of the camp activities touches upon all parts of the wheel of life for self-care (Picture 1): spiritual (for example group sharing, singing, conversations with a chaplain), physical (morning exercise, sports, swimming, crafts, water fights, singing which physically releases stress), creative activities to boost imagination* and change brain chemistry (acting, crafts, dancing); emotional/psychological (work with the dog therapy, candle exercise, group sharing); relationships/social (group activities, time for socializing, interpersonal relationships, teamwork, intercultural relationships with CYM vykhovnyky from other countries); mind/intellectual (educational activities about Ukrainian history and culture, responsibility). All these aspects are embedded in community support and care, which is represented by the camp itself, since the camp is organized and financed by joint efforts of CYM Ukraine and CYM oseredky worldwide. In such a manner, the environment in CYM charity summer camp helps the children to identify and develop internal and external resources and support networks, along with the responsibility which encourages better self-esteem, a sense of contribution and personal importance.
My final point in support of CYM charity summer camps from psychosocial point of view is that they to develop kids’ resiliency. Doctor Michael Ungar a prominent researcher and practitioner in the field of children’s resiliency has discovered nine factors that children need to boost their resiliency (Picture 2). These factors include structure; predictable consequences (if you make a mistake, you fix it, and you feel good about it); lots and lots of strong relationships (the broader network of community and peer relationships which are equally important to child-parent relationships); powerful identity where culture comes into place; sense of power and control (in terms of taking responsibilities and get rewarded, developing efficacy and ability to influence the world around you, etc.); a sense of belonging/cohesion/cultural adherence/spirituality/life purpose; need for their rights to be respected; and a sense of responsibility for others. In other words, at CYM summer camps children develop life skills and ability to bounce back in times of atrocity. This will be helpful for them in the future life and in terms of creating a cohesive and strong family relationships, connections with other people and building strong conscious civil society.
If we as society continue and expand these psychosocial supports to children affected by the war, we will be able to prevent intergenerational trauma (Giladi & Bell, 2012) and invest into posttraumatic growth (Powell et. al, 2003; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). It was amazing to witness, how mature most of teens from the war zone are – their psychological age is much higher than their physical age. The war has turned these kids into adults. But our children shall not just survive, they shall thrive and become change agents in the united society of Ukraine. And it is our responsibility as the Ukrainian society to make this happen. We shall not underestimate the power of strong relationships and community support. If not CYM Calgary hromada, I would have probably developed clinical depression back in 2014 after I had to leave behind my home in Crimea.
There is a reason why CYM greeting is “Hartuis’”. It means “harden” by heat and cold to become as strong as hardened steel, become resilient. By contributing to CYM charity summer camps and other CYM camps and activities we develop resilient generations with strong values, sense of identity and belonging, respect for their history, critical thinking; who can take care of themselves and each other, are not afraid to take responsibility and act for the sake of the community and prosperity of Ukraine.
Ganna (Anna) Zkharova, MA, MSW student at University of Calgary
To support the camp, follow the link.
* Van der Kolk (2014, p. 17) says that “Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives… Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities – it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true.”
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1994). Ecological models of human development. International encyclopedia of education, 3(2), 37-43.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245-258.
Giladi, L., & Bell, T. S. (2012). Protective factors for intergenerational transmission of trauma among second and third generation Holocaust survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5, 384–391.
Powell, S., Rosner, R., Butollo, W., Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2003). Posttraumatic growth after war: A study with former refugees and displaced people in Sarajevo. Journal of clinical psychology, 59(1), 71-83.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1–18.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (1994). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard review of psychiatry, 1(5), 253-265.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York: Viking.
Ungar, Michael. “Resilience: Nine things kids need from their families, schools, and communities”. Uploaded by Simcoe County District School Board, July 3, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwnu8S9Q8oU
Ungar, M., Ghazinour, M., & Richter, J. (2013). Annual research review: What is resilience within the social ecology of human development? Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 54(4), 348-366.
University at Buffalo. School of Social Work. Self-Care starter kit. Retrieved from: https://socialwork.buffalo.edu/resources/self-care-starter-kit.html
Wall, A. (2018, March 18). How busy hands can alter our brain chemistry. CBS News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/handiwork-how-busy-hands-can-alter-our-brain-chemistry/