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Program Helps Children Cope With War : Psychology: Counseling sessions give elementary-school students with loved ones in the Gulf a forum for dealing with their fears.

February 07, 1991|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before the first American soldiers died in Persian Gulf fighting, casualties of the conflict were spreading throughout the San Gabriel Valley: about 20 pupils at Killian Elementary School in Rowland Heights, about 50 at La Seda Elementary in La Puente and more than 60 at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High in Pomona.

For these children, war left the realm of GI Joe, plastic guns and Tonka toys to become aunt and uncle, brother and friend, mom and dad.

"Children don't have the coping mechanisms we adults have," said Jim Himes, a Rowland Unified School District psychologist. But "even down to the youngest children I work with, they have some awareness that daddy or mommy might never come home."

In December, Himes created lesson plans for eight group counseling sessions to help the children with parents in the Gulf relieve their fears. Groups using his program are forming at schools in the Rowland and Pomona Unified school districts and more than a dozen other districts have expressed interest.

Each session begins and ends with "Peace in My Heart," a song written by Himes. The refrain goes:

Peace in my heart,

Peace in my heart,

Peace in my heart today.

I'm feeling better

Though you're far away,

I have peace in my heart today.

"I was very careful to keep the melody and lyrics as simple as I could keep them," Himes said. "There's something about having a melody that sticks in your head. Music touches me more than just about any other art form."

Tears welled up in the eyes of sixth-grader Alan Pajimula, 11, as he sang during his recent group session at Hollingworth Elementary in West Covina.

"I was just thinking of my dad and what we'll do when he comes back," Alan said. His father is an Air Force medic sent abroad the week before Christmas. When asked to draw a fond memory of his father, Alan sketched the entrance to a Disneyland ride.

"My dad took me to different places, and after that, he usually said something like 'I love you,' " Alan told Himes and Hillary Bryan, another Rowland school psychologist.

Candy Saffold, 11, had to leave her San Diego home when her mother, also a medic, went overseas in December. Candy, who is living with an aunt in Walnut, said it was hard to adjust to different textbooks, new schoolmates and living apart from her brother and her beloved springer spaniel.

Aulbrey Goff, 9, had watched his father, a pilot, depart for the Persian Gulf about a year after cancer took Aulbrey's mother's life. His picture, titled "My Lovely Father," showed Aulbrey's father and a yellow sun that wore a grin but also had tears streaming from it.

"I hope Saddam Hussein doesn't catch my father," said Aulbrey, who is living with a relative.

Himes told the children that their sadness "means you have somebody you cared for and somebody cared for you." His sessions contain discussions about democracy, aggression and the origins of the war; about anxiety and how to lessen it; about the protective measures servicemen and women will benefit from; about how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones; and even about how to prepare for an awkward homecoming.

Also included is a coloring book to use and then send abroad, as well as other drawing assignments. Supplementary materials advise parents how to help their children.

"I think it's very good, very creative," said Jim Dean, supervisor of psychological services for the Pomona Unified School District.

Saddleback Valley Unified in Orange County--which includes some children of parents stationed at the El Toro Marine Base--also requested Himes' materials for its counselors.

"Everyone was prepared for an earthquake, a student getting killed in an auto accident or a parent dying of a disease," said Jim Hamilton, Saddleback's director of pupil services. "Where we're not so skilled is that we didn't think of war."

Though Himes' program can be adjusted for other ages, it targets children in the fourth through sixth grades. Most districts provide counselors only for junior high and high school students.

But war anxiety may hit children in elementary school harder, said Jane Stone, who administers psychological services for the Pasadena Unified School District.

Pacific Clinics in Pasadena last week trained Pasadena teachers on ways to help troubled children. Pacific also offered to take over the most serious cases at no charge.

"Kids are worried about and confronted with war in a way that was never the case with Vietnam," said Don Lomas, Pacific Clinics' director of child and adolescent programs. "You can't turn on the radio now without hearing in five minutes that you're going to get an update on the war. It makes it sound as though something is going on right here. It's a pervasive experience."

Hollingworth student Denise Edwards, 9, copes by tuning out the news. "I just finish my homework and play Nintendo," she said.

She won't write about the war in her diary. "I don't want to remember the war," she said, "because it puts me in a lot of pain. I'm afraid they're going to bomb where my father is."

Himes' goal is to provide a forum for children to air their feelings and to see that people care for them. Himes, who will share his lesson plans free, is scheduling evening meetings for parents in the Rowland district.

"Yes, horrible things might happen," Himes said. "But you don't have to live in fear all the time."

The sessions are helping, Denise said, and she also likes singing the song, which fits in nicely with her aspiration to be a rapper. "You just have to add a few words," she said.

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