Paraguay: 'Return to happiness' programme helps children recover from trauma

ASCUNCION, 13 August 2004 - The terrible fire on 1 August, in which more than 400 Paraguayans, including at least 46 children, lost their lives, has left many families and children grieving. In order to help affected children cope with their emotions and begin their return to a normal life, UNICEF is supporting a programme of psychosocial assistance called 'Return to Happiness'.

The programme ('Retorno de la Alegría' in Spanish) involves play-related activities in four stations: Drawing, physical activities, recreation and orientation. All of this is conducted under the direct supervision of professional psychologists.

The programme seeks to help children between the ages of 6 and 14 years. Implementation began one week after the fire. The programme takes place at a local radio station, 'FM Trinidad', which is broadcasting information about the programme for anyone interested.

'Return to Happiness' is intended to benefit some 1500 children. About 150 young volunteers are helping carry out the project. The volunteers were trained at a two-day workshop and have already begun working in the Santisima Trinidad neighbourhood of Asuncion.

"I hope these children will go back little by little to their normal lives, without forgetting what happened, but without experiencing ongoing pain," said 19-year-old Alicia, one of the volunteers for the programme. Alicia, like the other volunteers, is strongly motivated to do what she can to help the children cope with the tragedy.

With the help of the volunteers, children share their stories, games and music. They are expressing what they feel; the wounds are healing. No one knew what Sergio, seven, was thinking while he was drawing. When a volunteer asked what was in his picture, Sergio replied, "They are the people who died today." The methodology used in the programme enables Sergio and other children like him to address their emotions; in this way, the programme seeks to help the children return to their normal lives.

The 'Return to Happiness' concept was first developed in Mozambique during the 1992 civil war. Adaptable for various situations, it has been used in Ecuador with children of soldiers, in Colombia after the 1998 earthquake and in Nicaragua following Hurricane Mitch.