It’s a sunny afternoon in Cambodia. Four groups of children lean in, sharing the story of a little lost bird. In the story, Baby Finds Grace, Baby is a fledgling canary who loses her home and family in a powerful, frightening storm. She is afraid and all alone. The children immediately connect with the little bird. It doesn’t take long for the tears to flow.
Dr. Lyn Westman steps out with one tearful young child and sits with her and an interpreter on the swing. Sometimes it’s just too painful to talk in a group. It’s critical the facilitators recognize when vulnerable children need to be alone to share their pain.
Lyn a psychologist who has been working internationally since 1980. She is the Mental Health Program Consultant for both Mercy Ships and Tributaries International. She developed the program, Understanding People, Mental Health, and Trauma, to train church and community workers in basic mental health and counseling skills, particularly in areas where few resources for mental health exist. The program targets informal service providers like church leaders, orphanage workers, and social workers, and formal providers like healthcare workers.
Earlier this year, Tributaries International partnered with South East Asia Prayer Center (SEAPC) and New Hope for Orphans (NHO) to train house parents and staff. Thirty-one participants, all dedicated to providing care for children in Cambodia, completed 40-hours of training through this program.
“We’ve needed this for a long time,” says Tina Tomes, SEAPC’s Raising Kids Director.
In a survey of house parents last year, mental health and child safety training were top priorities.
The focus is on application rather than theory. Participants learn how to help the child in front of them find healing. By the time the house parents lead the children’s workshop, they’ve practiced counseling with each other. They’ve done the same exercise the children are doing now. Many had wept quietly as things they held down for years surfaced and the Holy Spirit touched deep wounds.
Not Only for Children, but for Adults Too
Lessons from the week are simple but deep. “Imagine this is my child,” says Lyn, holding up a small sponge. She dips it in water and speaks kindly. The sponge soaks up the pure, encouraging words and, when squeezed, pours out clear water. Then she adds coffee and dips the sponge again. This time the words are harsh, but the sponge-child soaks them up just the same. She squeezes, and the sponge pours out brown, dirty water.
Everyone closes their eyes and thinks about their own childhood, the things they heard, and the effects of things spoken years ago. All of us have scripts or labels in our heads, placed early on, which play over and over through our lives. Those things may be true, or they may be lies. They may be healthy or harmful.
Think about the labels kids in a children’s home might wear: orphaned, abandoned, problem child, unwanted, rejected. But what does God say? That they are sons and daughters, heirs, loved, chosen, accepted.
The room becomes hushed. There are tears. The participants soon grasp a new reality; this week will affect them personally. There is a shift, a change in the atmosphere. More than a training seminar; this week will be life-changing.
Light Coming into the Darkness
One participant said, “The training is like light coming into the darkness. We understand things we knew nothing about.”
Back in the children’s workshop, groups discuss Baby’s story. The children express their own stories through drawings and words. Emotions long locked up or hidden inside find their way out.
It’s hard, but it’s part of healing. Sometimes we want so much for children to feel better, we rush them through grief and don’t allow them to go through the process. In a children’s home, it’s safe to assume every child has experienced great loss and pain. Even the older ones who sat smiling through the story, find the tears come when they open up. But this is a safe place, and they are free to let the words and the tears come out. House parents continue working through this story with the children for another six weeks.
Relationships grow deeper with presence and connection. Little by little, guided by the Holy Spirit, healing takes place.