Tara Powell’s journey to help communities heal after Katrina, Harvey and beyond
New Orleans, 2007
Two years after hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, Tara Powell was still seeing its lingering effects. It was the fall of 2007 and Powell, who had just received her Master of Social Work from Tulane University, was working for the international organization Save the Children. She was called to assist a middle school where a massive fight had taken place, with scores of students beating each other, their teachers and even the security guards.
“It was pretty bad. The crisis counselor called and said that they were going to expel 20 kids unless somebody did something. So my supervisor sent a colleague and myself to run a trauma-focused curriculum with the students … or figure out what else to do!” Powell recalled.
In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Powell explained, many agencies went to New Orleans to provide mental health programming for schools in order to help students, teachers and parents cope with the collective trauma the storm had left on its wake.
“The teachers were stressed out, many of the children were separated from their families, with their parents being in Houston or Atlanta and not able to come back. Children were living in overcrowded conditions and many of them were acting as heads of households despite being only 13 or 14 years old,” Powell said.
But two years after Katrina, because of budget cuts and the outside perspective that hurricane recovery was complete, most programs were no longer available. The public school system, meanwhile, was still in crisis. Katrina had left only 16 of 128 buildings relatively unscathed and the student population greatly diminished. According to The New York Times, as late as 2013 the student population was still under 45,000, compared with 65,000 students before the storm.
One way the school system coped with the crisis was by clustering students from different neighborhoods in one single school. This, Powell said, was a recipe for disaster.
“New Orleans neighborhoods are very particular: being from the Lower Ninth Ward is very different from being from the Tremé or New Orleans East. But kids from all these different neighborhoods were put in the same schools. They formed gangs…” Powell said and paused. She chuckled as she added, “They were not really gangs because we are talking about middle schoolers. But they called themselves that.”
Powell and her colleague started by meeting with the students, individually and in groups, to get a grasp of what was going on and listen to students’ perspectives. Based on these discussions and input, they reshaped the existing curriculum with new topics and activities.
“We were doing community participatory research before we even had a word for it! The kids got really excited about being part of the process and experiencing the final product,” Powell said.
This curriculum eventually became the Journey of Hope, a school-based psychosocial intervention for children and early adolescents who have experienced collective trauma. The intervention focuses on normalizing emotions and building coping skills. During her time at the Ph.D. program at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, Powell conducted research that provided evidence for Journey of Hope’s effectiveness. To date, the intervention has been implemented far and wide: after a 6.3 earthquake in New Zealand, tornadoes in Alabama and Oklahoma, flooding in the United Kingdom and Canada, and hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.
This past fall, Powell, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, was in Houston conducting an all-day Journey of Hope training as part of post-Harvey recovery efforts.
Hurricane Harvey, which fell on Houston in August 2017, left in its wake nearly $200 billion worth of damage in the city. The flooding damaged more than 100,000 homes, and at the time of the training thousands of residents were still living in hotels and rental housing, unable to return to their homes.
“I was canoeing down my street. My house was fine, but one block away there was five feet of water. I helped a neighbor evacuate on his wheelchair,” a training participant named Sasha told me during lunch break. He lives in Meyerland, a neighborhood on Houston’s southwest side, which was heavily flooded.
With the other participants that day — most of them school-based mental health providers — Sasha’s goal was to help with recovery efforts by delivering the Journey of Hope in Houston schools.
The training was hands-on, with approximately 40 participants taking turns to play the role of facilitators and students. The intervention, which consists of eight sessions for groups of 8-10 students, covers topics such as safety, fear, anxiety, anger, grief and self-esteem. The sessions include components such as cooperative games, literacy activities, art-based activities and mindfulness exercises.
A colorful nylon parachute serves as both a physical anchor — participants sit or stand around it — and multi-use element for each session. During the training, participants learned how to use the parachute as a safety net in a trust-building activity, a shifting piece of ground in a cooperative game, and a softly floating roof in a calming exercise.
After the group covered each session, Powell answered questions and shared practical tips acquired from her many years of experience with the intervention.
“Do the students know why they are coming to the group? Should we mention the hurricane directly?” a participant asked during one of the discussion breaks.
“Well, I would wait to see whether they bring it up. Despite our preconceptions, Harvey may not be the most important thing kids have in their minds. Perhaps for them what is important is that they are living in a place they don’t like, or that they had to change schools or move away from their friends. Let it come out from them,” Powell answered.
“What do we do if a session is particularly moving for the kids?” another participant asked.
“Let’s remember that this is a psychoeducational intervention, it is not therapy,” Powell said. “We are not going very deep, the goal is to help them identify and process their feelings, and give them basic coping strategies that are useful for any traumatic situation. If you see that a particular kid needs more help, then you should follow up and refer the kid to a counselor.”
The journey goes on
The Journey of Hope is keeping Powell busy these days, as Save the Children is rolling the intervention out not only in Houston but also in Florida and Puerto Rico.
“I never thought that I was going to be a social worker, and that 10 years after getting my master’s I would still be working on disaster recovery!” said Powell, who discovered her fascination with helping individuals recover from traumatic events during her time in the Peace Corps in West Africa.
Powell is currently expanding her work to help adult populations. She is starting with a project in Jordan, to find feasible ways of integrating mental health awareness into primary care settings for Jordanian and Syrian adults who have experienced severe trauma during the recent wars in the region.
“There is deep stigma around mental health in Jordan. This is something that I also saw during my time in New Orleans; children were not getting the help they needed because of the stigma around mental health,” Powell reflected.
When asked how she feels about her globetrotting career, Powell responds that everywhere she has gone she has seen the common plight of human beings trying to overcome trauma.
“My passion is really about how to reach the wider group of people affected by traumatic events and help them meet their emotional health needs. Human beings are resilient. Given the right kind of supports, almost anyone can overcome a catastrophe,” Powell said.
Written by Andrea Campetella