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Chinese earthquake survivors finding healing, new hope

WENCHUAN, China (BP)–When the earthquake struck, Lim Yew* was walking across campus at the boarding school where he taught kindergarten. The ground buckled and the powerful tremor knocked him off his feet. He watched in horror as the buildings around him began to crumble.

At mid-afternoon, the classrooms were full of children. At least 150 kindergartners were in Lim’s building.

The ground beneath him shuddered for three full minutes. When the tremor subsided, Lim scrambled to his feet and ran to the rubble of the kindergarten building. He could hear trapped children and teachers calling for help.

A few other survivors joined Lim as he feverishly began digging through the broken pieces of the building. Many of the concrete chunks were simply too large to move. Looking around in desperation, they saw telephone lines lying on the ground and used them to pull sections of wall and ceiling out of the way. They broke into cars and pulled out the jacks, hoping they would be able to lift the heavy blocks off their trapped co-workers and pupils.

The survivors began to find children who were still alive, terrified and badly injured. They also came across lifeless bodies. Lim wondered when help would arrive. Someone finally ran to the police station to ask for assistance — only to find that most of the officers on duty had been killed.

Hours later, they had pulled 50 children from the ruins of the kindergarten building. At least 100 more were buried beyond reach. Heavy equipment would be required to get to them. Since landslides had blocked the roads into town, it would be days before that kind of help could arrive.

Lim finally gave up searching the building debris and turned his attention to finding his own family. He located his wife’s partially exposed body in the rubble of their apartment building. He never was able to find their child.


The 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck China’s Sichuan province on May 12, 2008, destroyed lives as well as buildings. The disaster killed as many as 87,000 people and caused an estimated $146.5 billion in damage. Nearly 5 million people were left homeless as entire cities were leveled and villages disappeared under landslides.

“There are several cities, including Lim’s, that will never be rebuilt. The ground is too unstable,” said Pam Wolf, who with her husband Ben directs work in the Asia Rim for Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization. “Millions of people can never go home. Everyone lost family and friends in the earthquake. The pain and grief on that scale is almost impossible to comprehend.”

The raw emotion still felt by Sichuan’s survivors — untouched by caring friends or professional therapy — presents a key opportunity for Southern Baptists to minister God’s love to hurting souls, Ben Wolf said.

“There is a great need to help the survivors in some way cope with all they have been through,” Wolf said. “Five million people have lost their loved ones, friends, homes and livelihoods. Their towns, cities or villages no longer exist. Many of them will never return because it isn’t safe to rebuild. Their lives must be rebuilt physically and emotionally, but where to begin?”

After intensive and careful planning, a program has been launched to train teachers to help children deal with the emotional trauma they are suffering. The initiative, which has been sanctioned by the Chinese government, is the first of its kind in the country.

“In China, many children go to boarding school as early as 3 years old, so the children’s lives center around their school and their teacher,” Pam Wolf explained. “Because of this, it was decided that the best and fastest way to help the children was to train their school teachers to help them.”

Training the teachers also meant helping them process their own earthquake-related grief and pain, Wolf noted.

“Ben and I were privileged to join in the first official training of schoolteachers from the quake area. They came for one week to Southwest University of the Nations in the city of Chendgu,” she said. “Sixty teachers were involved in this first training, which was designed to help them begin to break down the walls of trauma in their own lives and learn how to walk others through the process.”


The weeklong program organized the teachers into small groups and engaged them in activities designed to help them express pent-up emotions about the losses they had suffered because of the earthquake.

One activity involved a large purple onion. Members of each group were asked to peel off one layer of the onion while telling how the earthquake had affected them. Most pulled off their layer in sections, but one man — Lim — picked off very small pieces as he talked about not being able to rescue the kindergartners and of losing his wife and child.

As Lim spoke, other members of his group listened intently, tears streaming down their faces. They all nodded in silent understanding. Three of the teachers in his group had lost spouses. Others had lost students.

“The hardest part is that I still remember every detail,” Lim concluded. It was the first time he had talked with anyone about his experience.

One teacher in the group said she was from a school where seven children died but all the teachers survived. Members of the community were angry because no teachers had died, she recounted. Why did their children die when no teachers had?

“Guilt has festered and is so painful in these school teacher’s hearts,” Ben Wolf said. “During these sessions, they were able to share these things with one another and be understood. As the week progressed, the teachers began to build a real bond.”

Southern Baptists helped with one element of the training: showing the teachers how to use books on trauma and grief that have been provided through Southern Baptist relief funds, Pam Wolf added.

“This is a set of six beautiful little books dealing with grief and anger,” she said. “They have titles like ‘Making Sense out of Suffering,’ ‘Getting Well,’ ‘Everyday Courage’ and ‘Gratitude.’ These books can aid the teachers as they walk through the effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome with the children in their classrooms.”

Another session also used a resource provided by Southern Baptists, Ben Wolf noted.

“There was a session given to hug therapy. This is a very important part of the training because in the Chinese culture physical affection is not a part of their family life,” he explained. “Most people do not know how to show affection or support with a physical touch. Children are taught independence and strength by not expressing outward emotions, and touching is a part of that.”

Tears flowed freely during hug therapy, Pam Wolf said.

“There is just something about another caring human being holding you, especially in a time of grief and trial,” she said. “These hurting schoolteachers experienced the touch of their peers and the release of emotions it brought. They realized how important this would be for their students. Several of the teachers said it was the first time they could remember laughing since the earthquake.”

The Southern Baptist contribution to that session was a fuzzy teddy bear with the Chinese characters for “peace” and “joy” stitched on the bottoms of its feet. The teachers will use the bears as a tool to help children begin the process of emotional healing.

“Chinese children don’t normally have toys and these teachers had never experienced the comfort and joy of hugging a soft teddy bear,” Pam Wolf said. “There were a lot of tears and then many smiles. We saw lots of hugging, snuggling and playing, and everyone had a picture taken with their bears. Wherever our bears go, they bring smiles and laughter and lots of hugs.”

When the program is launched in the schools, each child who is counseled will receive a teddy bear, Ben Wolf said. Teachers will use teddy bear hand puppets to draw the children into make-believe conversations that will help them process their emotions about the earthquake.

Baptist Global Response has a goal of providing 150,000 sets of “Books & Bears” for earthquake survivors — demonstrating God’s love by helping them experience emotional healing and renewed hope.

“We look forward to following our bears wherever they go,” Wolf said. “We look forward to seeing how they can change lives and give a touch of hope to those who have lost all hope. They will provide a lot of physical comfort to children at boarding schools in the middle of the night, lying awake on cots in a room with 11 other children. We pray that our bears will hold up well to healthy tears being shed and give back comfort.”

Baptist Global Response has been invited to provide books and bears for a three-year partnership with Southwestern University of the Nations, the Chinese Bureau of Education and several other organizations that will train 2,000 teachers to help the children in their care, Pam Wolf said.

“This program is the first of its kind in China,” she said. “Our prayer is that many people will receive a renewed hope in life because of it. Just imagine, 2,000 teachers bringing comfort and hope to classrooms of up to 80 children!”
*Pseudonym used to protect the teacher’s privacy. Mark Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press. Information about helping with the “Books and Bears” project can be found at www.gobgr.org.

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  • Mark Kelly