Alberta research project is building youths’ abilities to cope after disaster

Nov 6, 2017

The floods that devastated southern Alberta in June 2013 changed the course of Kennedy Hill’s life. They inspired her to change her university major to better help people cope with disaster.

Now 22, and a sociology major at Mount Royal University, Hill is participating in an Alberta Innovates-funded research project that fosters youths’ resilience after disaster. The Alberta Resilient Communities (ARC) Research Project: Engaging Children and Youth in Community Resilience Post-flood in Southern Alberta gives youth opportunities to participate in disaster recovery.

That’s something communities frequently fail to do on a meaningful level, says Robin Cox, PhD, professor and director of the ResiliencebyDesign research lab at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. “Young people represent a largely untapped resource of creativity and commitment,” explains Cox, an ARC researcher looking at the resilience of 15- to 24-year-olds.

“They’re not going to be youth forever. They will be managing escalating disaster risks and extreme weather events. They will be the future’s premiers and ministers and CEOs. The more they can make their voices heard and be involved in decisions that impact them, the better for them and us.”

To help students find and use their voices, Cox and her research team designed a resilience innovation skills certificate, offered through Royal Roads’ Continuing Studies. Participants attend workshop-style labs and learn to gather information through interviews, analyze and understand data, develop creative strategies to engage communities and use digital tools to tell stories. After developing resiliency initiatives for their communities, certificate graduates are now refining their prototypes and putting them to use.

One student designed and built a micro-computer that makes it easier for people to respond and communicate in a disaster. Three young people who call themselves InVanNation are creating videos that highlight positive social and environmental action. Another youth is developing the game-structured app TLC (Think Less Consumption) that encourages consumers to make environmentally friendly choices. And Hill is using digital stories to help Canadian youth share ideas about disasters and climate change.

Making the connection between the environment and natural disaster is an important component of resilience, says Caroline McDonald-Harker, PhD, a sociologist and professor at MRU.

McDonald-Harker, the ARC researcher looking at children’s resilience, and her undergraduate research assistants interviewed 79 children and one of their parents. The children who understood the relationship between the environment and disaster understood that future disasters can happen. This understanding inspired the kids to recycle, encourage their parents to drive less and much more. “This helped them to have more control over their environment instead of feeling helpless and susceptible to outside forces,” McDonald-Harker says.

Children whose parents tried to shield them, either by sending them out of town to stay with relatives or telling them they’d never experience a disaster such as the flood again, were more anxious than those whose parents acknowledged the trauma and invited the children to help with the recovery process.

“When these kids were actively involved in helping others, it helped them to overcome their feelings of despair,” McDonald-Harker says. “It took their minds off what they were experiencing.”

Most studies about disaster recovery focus on the short-term, the emergency phase when people are evacuated and supports are put in place. ARC is looking at long-term recovery and exploring ways to sustain supports. Julie Drolet, PhD, says mental health and emotional impacts don’t often emerge in the immediate aftermath when families are so focused on meeting their basic needs. The associate professor of social work at the University of Calgary is focusing on ARC’s community component.

One challenge facing communities is that disaster preparedness often becomes a priority only after a disaster.

Involving young people in developing preparedness plans, especially when those young people have already been through a disaster, benefits everyone.

“When people have experienced a big event like this in their lives, they have something to draw from and learn from.”

Written by Debby Waldman (originally appeared in Apple Magazine, Fall 2017)