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updated: 3/3/2010 9:47 AM

Lending Haiti a hand a message that hits home with the young

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  • Stella Mitsuno works on Principal Marion Friebus-Flaman of Dooley Elementary School in Schaumburg with the rest of the "blue crew," transforming her from head to toe as a payoff to her students, who raised more than $4,000 for Haiti.

    Stella Mitsuno works on Principal Marion Friebus-Flaman of Dooley Elementary School in Schaumburg with the rest of the "blue crew," transforming her from head to toe as a payoff to her students, who raised more than $4,000 for Haiti.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer


Children from across the Northwest suburbs have been stepping up in big numbers to help earthquake-ravaged Haitians in crisis, collecting thousands through school fundraisers.

While experts welcome the efforts as ways to help while also teaching children empathy and generosity, they also caution adults about how much exposure children have to graphic details of tragedies. Having adults taking the lead and reassuring children about these catastrophes is even more important as earthquake images over the weekend from Chile reached stateside.

An example of the positive comes from Nicole Saunders and her classmates at Hunting Ridge School in Palatine. Their efforts to help have brought them joy and a sense of accomplishment.

Collecting spare change in a jar over a week in the front of their classroom, the kindergartners raised $875 for the Red Cross. Saunders said she hopes the money is spent on medicine and food.

Seeing her classmates donate money made her feel "really happy," she said.

"I thought about the kids there that were really sad and lonely," Nicole said.

Her mother, Teresa Saunders, has encouraged her daughter to have a balanced worldview. She notes that Nicole was particularly moved by the stories of injured children.

"She wanted to know how we could reach out and help," Saunders said.

Other fundraisers include "penny wars," a competition between classes to see which homerooms can bring in more change.

Red Cross officials said it's not rare for elementary school fundraisers to bring in $1,000.

Schoolchildren appear to be helping more in the wake of major tragedies, whether that's Hurricane Katrina, California wildfires or earthquakes in China, said Carli Franks, manager of corporate partnerships of the American Red Cross of the Greater Chicago Area.

"I think anytime there's a large natural disaster, a lot of media attention touches a high response from schools," Franks said.

And while getting children involved in helping others is a healthy thing, experts say adults should make sure children don't get overloaded with information about the tragedy.

The human brain isn't fully developed until people are in their 20s, and that leaves youngsters vulnerable.

"They don't have judgment, they don't have insight, they don't have a worldview," said Dr. Cecelia Horan, the clinical psychologist at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Hospital in Hoffman Estates. "Everything is very concrete, everything is literal."

Horan said the media has improved in the coverage of the Chile earthquake compared to Haiti, not showing as many images of homeless and injured children, the kind that captivated American children.

She warns parents and teachers to use common sense. She hearkens back to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and said clinical research is revealing the adverse effects on children from watching the planes crash into the World Trade Center.

Symptoms can include bad dreams, changes in appetite or sleep patterns and listlessness. It's difficult to predict how long the effects of seeing these images will last on children who can't but help replay the scenes in their head as part of their visual memories.

Parents should be observant of symptoms of stress after the Chilean earthquake, Horan said. Children may have questions if America is vulnerable, given the proximity of the two disasters, she added.

Still, Horan said that the tragedies also can be used to educate, as children learn about Haitian and Chilean cultures, not just about the relief effort.

When the Red Cross visits a school, Franks said, officials focus on what the charity can do to help and don't use graphic imagery. And teachers are carefully walking this fine line, hoping to make the best of tragedy.

"I feel it's very important for kids today to be aware of a cause greater than themselves," said Stacey Magnusson, an art and drama teacher at Cumberland School in Des Plaines.

Students at Cumberland raised $350 for the Salvation Army through selling valentines. Magnusson, who's active in charities, said she doesn't expect all her students to volunteer as they grow older, but hopes that some will follow her lead and continue after their school days.

And don't scoff at the notion of how loose change from a piggy bank can help. While Franks with the Red Cross said she doesn't advise potential donors to show up with a jar of pennies, she does say even a little bit of money makes a difference. In Haiti, for example, $5 buys a bottle to store clean drinking water, while $10 buys a blanket and $25 buys a kitchen set, including pots and pans.

Kids are not just raising money. Over at Fields Elementary in Wheeling, student Jake Estes is collecting bars of soap to send on a mission to Haiti.

And a competition with a reward is one way to pique children's interest in aiding in the relief effort.

At Dooley Elementary School in Schaumburg, youngsters were pushed by the notion that their principal would dress herself head to toe in the blue - the school color - if fundraising efforts reached $4,000. The students succeeded and Principal Marian Friebus-Flaman painted her face and hands blue while wearing blue clothes at a school assembly.

Students at Dooley wanted to know how the earthquake happened and if anyone was hurt. Teachers explained, but didn't go into specific details that could have proved traumatizing.

"We made it clear the way the Haitians kids were living is much different from the way they were living," teacher Tiffany Naatz said. "And that was before their lives were being interrupted."