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Linda Mason Headshot

Healing Kids in NYC -- And Around the World

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It is difficult to imagine anything good resulting from the senseless and devastating September 11th terrorist attacks. But in the days and weeks after 9/11, I witnessed something positive and incredible: people coming together to heal the emotional wounds of kids in New York City, and taking that healing to kids around the world.

I'm the co-founder of a company called Bright Horizons Family Solutions, which runs childcare and early education centers at workplaces across the United States. In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, my attention focused on our downtown Manhattan center in the JPMorgan Chase & Co. building -- just one block from Ground Zero. Children and caregivers anxiously awaited the return of parents, many of whom worked in the World Trade Center, and the center became a makeshift support area for shocked survivors.

Amazingly, none of our parents were lost but the anxiety and trauma were tremendous for everyone. One preschooler summed it up: he looked out at the massive destruction, and asked, "What happened to our world?"

As the tragedy unfolded, the emotional toll became worse, particularly for children who could not process and cope with trauma in the same way as adults. A huge number of children were impacted. A 2002 report to the NYC Board of Education estimated that -- six months after the attacks -- 75,000 NYC students were suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a leader in the children's field, I felt that we had a responsibility to help kids suffering from trauma and parents struggling to make sense of a national tragedy. We also had to be smart and create tools that would be scalable to reach a large number of people, sustainable with minimal support, and simple enough for laypeople to understand and use.

Four days after the disaster, leaders from Bright Horizons, JPMorgan Chase and the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps huddled in an eerily quiet New York office to develop a plan of action. We came up with a program called "Comfort for Kids," an approach that combines a trauma-training workshop for adults with an interactive workbook to help children tell their story of the disaster in a safe environment.

Over the next several weeks, we worked together to make Comfort for Kids a reality. Each party brought something to the table: Bright Horizons developed a trainer of trainers program and created the curriculum. Our vice president of education, the late Jim Greenman, wrote a small book and training manual for teachers and caregivers entitled "What Happened to My World," and brought in our Bright Horizons vendors to supply Comfort Kits for children. Mercy Corps brought years of experience working with people in disaster zones around the world, and ran the trainings and distribution of materials. JP Morgan Chase provided generous financial support, space for the training program, and printed the books. Their offices and employee volunteers became the logistics heart of the program.

We conducted trainings in hundreds of schools and community facilities throughout the city, targeting low-income communities where children would not likely have access to mental health professionals. In addition, we distributed 12,000 Comfort Kits containing age appropriate items like toys, books and stuffed animals to children across the city. It was a thrill to see kids' faces light up when they received these kits!

9/11 was just the beginning for Comfort for Kids. The program was so successful that Mercy Corps subsequently implemented it -- often in partnership with Bright Horizons -- in a range of disaster zones like post-Katrina New Orleans, the war-battered Gaza Strip, and earthquake-rattled areas of China, Haiti, Peru, Chile and Japan. Later this month, Mercy Corps will bring Comfort for Kids to parents and kids in the conflict-torn Libyan city of Misrata.

Over the course of the past ten years, I've met children around the world whose lives have been changed by disaster and conflict: young survivors of war who clung to their parents whenever they heard a loud noise or little ones who are deathly afraid of being indoors after an earthquake. With each meeting, I've been reminded of how deep and painful emotional scars can be. Thanks to work that began ten years ago in the shadows of the Twin Towers, these scars don't have to be permanent.