Thursday, November 14, 2013

Routine a comfort factor for Beach Haven Elementary School students, post-Sandy

Last year, Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on many of Long Beach Island’s homes and businesses, uprooting families from their daily lives and creating a mix of emotions. In the midst of chaos, Beach Haven Elementary School’s students had to be bused over to Eagleswood Township Elementary School, where they finished out the school year while repairs were being made to the storm-ravaged building on the Island.
“We had so many people at the Beach Haven School affected by the storm. It seemed like everyone was displaced, students and teachers,” said Mary O’Meara, a licensed professional counselor who provided counseling services to Beach Haven Elementary School’s students following the storm.
Photo via The Star-Ledger
Gov. Christie welcomes students back to
Beach Haven Elementary School in September.
O’Meara has been the school’s social worker for the past 10 years. She also provides private counseling sessions out of the New Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy on Mill Creek Road in Manahawkin. She, too, was displaced from her home in Beach Haven due to storm damage last year.
“In a way it was helpful that I had also experienced this because I was going through it at the same time the kids were. We could really relate on the issue of not being in your own house and the lost stuff and the damage,” she said.
Though the experience was unsettling for many, O’Meara said the students expressed great resilience and even created new friendships with the Eagleswood students.
“It was a pretty smooth transition, actually. Eagleswood really welcomed us with open arms,” O’Meara said. “I think it was a very good fit between our two schools because we were both small schools. The staff there was great. We really have a place in our hearts for those people at Eagleswood.”
The Beach Haven students returned to school on the Island in September, which helped them to regain a sense of normalcy, O’Meara said. They even invited their new friends from Eagleswood to participate in the school’s “welcome back” celebration in October, leaving Sandy behind.
Though many students would rather not talk about the storm anymore, O’Meara said, she has seen an increase of clients, both children and adults, who suffer from heightened anxiety.
“Some of it I’m sure is storm-related, but some of it is just a general rise in anxiety because of vulnerability to things. You just don’t know what’s going to happen next. If it happened once, it could happen again. Something has changed,” she said.
In many cases, O’Meara said, kids are most likely picking up on their parent’s anxieties about lost homes and jobs and other issues that stem from the storm.
“When things change in adults, it affects kids, too,” she said.
O’Meara expects emotions will continue to run high for a while, especially during such tough economic times. Hypervigilance and even flashbacks of the storm are not uncommon.
“Some people might call it a mild form of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). You’ve gone through a traumatic experience,” she said.
O’Meara recommends seeking help if the anxiety becomes debilitating, affecting school or work performance and home life.
“I think the biggest thing for kids is to get back to routine and normalcy. It was very important for us to get back to the school and for the kids to be back in their own environment,” she said. “I felt the same way when I was able to move back into my house. It makes a big difference in the way you feel.”

–Kelley Anne Essinger

This article was published in The SandPaper.

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