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Providing Hope—and Health—for Children

Tara Powell

Associate Professor

little girl sanitizing hands

The Journey of Hope has long helped children develop resilience in the face of natural disasters. Now, it is being adapted in a study to test its efficacy for those facing the challenges brought on by both natural disasters and COVID-19.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused an estimated $125 billion in physical damage—and an untold amount of mental and emotional damage.

Out of that storm, Journey of Hope was born.

Journey of Hope is an evidence-based intervention that was co-developed by Tara Powell and colleagues from Save the Children, the first organization to prioritize children’s needs in the aftermath of disasters in the United States. The intervention helps children develop resilience in the face of natural disasters.

Journey of Hope is still going strong today; Save the Children has delivered the program in disaster and low-resource settings across the globe. And the program is the reason for a four-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. The grant supports the adaptation of Journey of Hope as an intervention in communities in the southern United States that have been dually impacted by COVID-19 and recent hurricanes.

“This grant is incredibly important to me because disaster-affected children who live in low-resource settings are disproportionately impacted by these events, yet do not receive services to meet their social and emotional needs,” says Powell, an associate professor in the School of Social Work.

Powell is principal investigator on the grant, working with co-investigators from the University of South Florida and the University of Houston. The researchers are collaborating with Save the Children.

Building Healthy Coping Skills

“Journey of Hope offers an age-specific curriculum to help children and their caregivers understand, process, and express their feelings and emotions,” Powell says. “The program builds healthy coping skills through structured games, stories, and positive behaviors in a safe, small group setting. It helps children identify emotions and understand that it’s normal to feel angry, sad, or frustrated during scary or difficult situations.”

The program is organized into eight one-hour sessions for groups of eight to 10 children.

Studying the Efficacy of the Program’s Adaptation

“We’re studying the implementation and efficacy of the COVID-19 adaptation of the Journey of Hope intervention on economically disadvantaged and racial and ethnic minority children in the disaster-affected areas in the southern US,” says Powell. “There’s a critical need for behavioral health interventions that are designed to prevent or reduce disaster-related distress and lessen behavioral health disparities among racial and ethnic minority children in high poverty settings who have been exposed to multiple large-scale disasters.”

Four Aims of Study

Powell and her team are conducting a study with 800 children from third through eighth grade. She notes the study has four primary aims:

  1. seeing if the COVID-19 adapted intervention is effective in preventing behavioral health and interpersonal problems among the children involved;
  2. examining if change variables such as social connectedness, adaptive coping, and self-efficacy have positive effects on children’s behavioral health and interpersonal behaviors;
  3. assessing the moderating impact of COVID-19-related stressors on behavioral health outcomes among children who participate in the study versus a control group; and
  4. exploring hindrances and helps to the implementation process and the acceptance of the intervention as delivered through community and school-based counselors in school and after-school settings.

The Need for the Intervention

“COVID-19 had a profound impact on children, jeopardizing their sense of safety, security, and behavioral health,” Powell says. “In addition, with a changing climate, millions of children in the southern United States are at risk for or have first-hand experience of hurricane-related stressors. Coupled with pandemic-related stress, many of these children are disproportionately at risk for escalating mental health problems.

“Thus, there is a critical need for these children to receive accessible, empirically-supported preventative interventions to mitigate the onset of mental illness and behavioral health issues.”

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