Last March on a visit to Gaza after the region was devastated by constant bombing and conflict, I toured a relief center where young children were encouraged to express their feelings through art. It is often said that a picture can speak a thousand words. But what I saw there were no words to describe.
The young children I visited showed me their drawings, many of which were pictures of rockets aimed at their homes. One little girl painted the bottom part black and told me it was 'a place to bury the dead.'
These heart-wrenching stories unfortunately are not uncommon. Children caught in disasters, and those on all sides of every conflict, need help to overcome anxiety and fear.
It is estimated that 175 million children are impacted by disasters every single year. During the past three years alone, UNICEF has responded to more than 800 emergencies around the world, witnessing first-hand the trauma children endure due to conflict, war and natural disasters.
The statistics are alarming and give reason as to why more resources and interventions are needed to help these innocent victims. Countless studies demonstrate how critical investments in early childhood, particularly for children under the age of six, can have a powerful impact to individuals and societies at large, helping break the cycle of poverty.
This is just one reason why UNICEF has launched a new program to provide help to thousands of children in communities most impacted by natural disaster and conflict. Through UNICEF's Early Childhood Development (ECD) Kit, much needed educational resources are being provided to young children to create an environment where they can express their feelings, play and learn with their peers and caregivers.
The first of its kind within the humanitarian community, these ECD kits contain educational materials and learning tools to help young children regain a sense of normalcy in a world that is often everything but normal. The kits contain materials, otherwise unavailable, to help these children at an early childhood age, which is the most critical period for brain development.
The ECD kit is a box containing 37 different items, for use by approximately 50 children up to six years of age. Each kit makes possible a range of activities that encourage development and social interaction and promote playing, drawing, story-telling and numeracy. The materials - coloring pencils, construction blocks, hand puppets, puzzle blocks, and memory games -- give children a sense of security, friendship, property, and often most importantly, smiles and laughter.
Early experiences create a foundation for physical and mental health, optimal growth, lifelong learning, social and emotional competencies and productivity. If there is a disruption in the development for example, through serious trauma that is not addressed early on, it could result in life-long development problems.
From earthquakes in Pakistan and the devastating tsunami in Asia, to the conflict in Gaza, children are the ones who suffer most. They are the most vulnerable and in need of special care and attention to ensure their social and emotional well-being.
All children have the right to survive, grow, and develop to have a normal childhood. These kits are just one of many interventions UNICEF and its partners have developed to benefit children who are most impacted by tragedy.
Through my travels I have seen the smiles and joy these treasure chests of hope bring to so many young faces. They create a since of normalcy to little lives that have been shattered and provide a safe place to play and be a child. They are a valuable tool at an early age that will give these children a better chance to reach their full potential and live productive lives.
Ann M. Veneman is the Executive Director of UNICEF. To learn more about UNCEF and the Early Childhood Development Kit visit www.unicef.org.
Launch of ECD kits: http://www.unicef.org/earlychildhood/index_50266.html
ECD kits in Tbilisi, Georgia: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/georgia_50265.html