The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented amount of stress and anxiety — especially among children and families in Holt programs around the world. Learn how Holt’s on-the-ground team in Pune, India, is helping to address this mental health crisis and protect the overall wellbeing of sponsored kids and families.
When India imposed a nationwide lockdown early in the pandemic, families across the country went into crisis. But nowhere more so than in the impoverished slum communities where Holt-sponsored children and families live. Under strict quarantine measures, they could not leave their homes for work or school or even to go to the grocery store. They had no income, minimal savings, and very quickly ran out of food. Some had a limited supply of lifesaving medications. Some went days without anything to eat.
Although the rest of the world was also grappling with the sudden emergence of a deadly new virus, our donors immediately responded with emergency donations for families in our programs. In Pune, our long-time partner, Bharatiya Samaj Seva Kendra (BSSK), also began mobilizing their response — calling families to survey them about their needs.
Vaishali Vahikar is the sponsorship program director at BSSK. For the past 24 years, she has worked with the children and families in the slum communities of Pune and when COVID hit, she helped lead the emergency response.
“We prioritized the needs of the [children and families]. The first thing we did was list out all the families on lifesaving medicines,” she explained during a recent Zoom call. “We first helped them. Second, the people who didn’t have grains at home. Then we helped them.”
Going door to door, the staff at BSSK distributed over 1,033 kits of emergency food and lifesaving medications. For many, these emergency distributions literally meant the difference between life and death.
But after the initial crisis had passed, BSSK social workers began to address an issue not as dire as food and medicine, but just as critical to the overall wellbeing of children and families: mental and emotional health.
Another Kind of Health Crisis
At first, children and families relished the extra time at home together. Once Holt donors ensured they had enough food to eat, parents and kids could just enjoy this time without the daily responsibilities of work and school. But as days wore into weeks, the pandemic began to take on a different feel for the children and families living in the slums of Pune.
“During the first lockdown, in March 2020, the children’s movement were restricted,” Vaishali explains. “They were made to sit inside the houses, which created panic situation all around and lot of confusion in the minds of children.”
“During the first lockdown, in March 2020, the children’s movement were restricted. They were made to sit inside the houses, which created panic situation all around and lot of confusion in the minds of children.”Vaishali Vahikar, sponsorship program director at BSSK
While many of us have also had to quarantine at home, a house in an urban slum in India is not like a house anywhere else. Their home is often a single room shared by a family as large as six or seven people. Homes are stacked and crowded and feel more like a storage unit, with only one door to the outside. Few have electricity or plumbing. Children bathe in buckets in the alley outside. Families sleep side by side on the floor or on a single bed.
Usually, it’s not such a big deal to live six people to a single room. Families schedule their days so they are rarely home at the same time. But during the lockdown, the lack of space became stifling. Young children didn’t understand why they couldn’t go outside. As they watched their parents grow increasingly stressed and worried, they too grew stressed and worried.
“Fear of unknown, uncertainty [took] up charge of each one,” explains Vaishali, “leading to a lot of mental stress.”
Siblings fought. Kids got restless and struggled to do school online. Living 24/7 in close, unsanitary conditions, families developed skin rashes and bacterial infections. Parents lashed out at their kids, and kids clashed with parents. With alcoholism a chronic problem in slums, some parents blew their family’s limited savings on alcohol. The situation became like a pressure cooker that built until it blew — leading to greater incidents of domestic violence.
In the slums of Pune, as in homes and communities around the world, the health crisis known as COVID-19 became a full-on mental health crisis and a danger to Holt-sponsored children and families.
Holistic Care in a Time of Crisis
When sponsors and donors support a child through Holt, they don’t just provide food, clothing and shelter. They send a social worker out into the field to work one-on-one with that child and his or her family — to talk about the hardships they face, and encourage and empower them to take charge of their lives. They instill confidence in parents to start a small business, encourage kids in school, strengthen parenting and life skills, and when needed, provide crisis counseling.
At BSSK in Pune, social workers began calling families on a regular basis.
“Each of the social workers would call ten families. We had a list of about 20 questions and we would talk to the children, to the parents, about how they are coping,” explains Vaishali. “How are their economic issues? How emotionally are they supporting each other? Are there any other issues that are creating uneasiness in the family? We talk about what things are in your control, which things can you cope with alone and [for] which things do you think you need external support.”
If families face a serious crisis, social workers venture out to their homes for in-person counseling. In some cases, they may refer them to a psychologist or recruit the support of relatives or family friends to help keep the peace and make sure children are safe.
During their calls, the social work team in Pune recognized that many children are simply bored and restless due to the tedium of sitting at home all day.
“We found there was a lot of need to keep children creatively and productively engaged,” Vaishali explains.
Activities normally held in person they began to offer online — connecting via cell phones Holt donors provided so children could attend school online. They held digital camps with fun and educational activities. They also held training sessions for parents to improve communication with their children and develop healthy ways to manage stress and anger.
“We see a ray of hope as gradually everyone has accepted to live with COVID as a new normal. Parents have slowly started going back to work. Children are adjusting to the online education system. And most of all, you continue to support your sponsored child, which brings so much hope to their life.”Vaishali Vahikar
“It was very nice to see that the mothers volunteered to participate in these classes and they had a lot of questions,” says Vaishali. “A lot of practical issues which they could discuss. … We asked children, ‘What changes do you find after your mothers have been attending these classes?’ And the children were very happy to say, ‘Now my mother seems to be understanding us more.’”
Rays of Hope
In a recent letter to Holt sponsors who support children in Pune, Vaishali wrote, “We see a ray of hope as gradually everyone has accepted to live with COVID as a new normal. Parents have slowly started going back to work. Children are adjusting to the online education system. And most of all, you continue to support your sponsored child, which brings so much hope to their life.”
Although schools and businesses reopened early in 2021, cases of COVID-19 in India have since spiked and in-person school has once again closed. No one knows how long the pandemic will continue or when life will fully return to normal. But one thing remains constant. The holistic care that Holt sponsors and donors make possible for children and families will continue to ensure their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing — in times of peace, and in times of crisis.
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