Dallas, Texas (Dec. 20, 2017) – UNT Dallas Professor of Counseling Jennifer Baggerly has returned from Puerto Rico after four days on the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria, where she was working with children, parents and training university students who are studying social work. The devastating category 5 storm made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, and approximately 35 percent of its residents still don’t have electricity.

Dr. Baggerly is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor, and a Registered Play Therapist Supervisor. She traveled to Puerto Rico with two doctoral students from the University of North Texas, Ana Reyes and Monica Rodriguez. Urban Strategies – a social enterprise that partners with organizations to assist underserved communities in the United States and Puerto Rico – coordinated the trip, with program manager Cristina Diaz-Hernandez serving as host.  

The team arrived at Pontifical Catholic University, in Ponce, Puerto Rico to teach their students the neurophysiological impact of disaster on children, and Baggerly showed them strategies for helping local children cope with trauma. They also visited Iglesia el Calvario, a church in the town of Utuado, where they worked with parents and children.  

“The participants really appreciated our training,” Baggerly said. “They still needed to process their own experiences and grief. They reported a lot of children have become very hyperactive, and others have become withdrawn since the disaster. It’s known as ‘emotional dysregulation.’ In these children’s world, the disaster is ongoing. They don’t have electricity, they don’t have a safe home, so they are still in disaster mode. We taught them deep breathing, muscle relaxation and positive thinking processes so they can function and cooperate in schools and within their families.”

Baggerly’s kit for play therapy for children includes art supplies, assorted small toys and a particularly useful tool in helping children express themselves are hand puppets. She also worked with a legion of young survivors following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana over a decade ago.

“The puppets are a way to help children process their experiences and get accurate information on things they misunderstand,” she said. “For example, their parents have been dealing with a disaster, and they may have been preoccupied with getting food, shelter, and everything in life is taking longer than it used to. Children are left on their own. Some children feel like their parents are mad at them, or forgot about them. Through the puppets, we are able to explain the circumstances. It takes everyone together to recover from a disaster.”

Baggerly also shared some observations from her travels through Puerto Rico. Access to clean water remains limited for approximately 14 percent of the population overall.

“We stayed in Dorado (a large town on the northern coast of the island) and we had running water and electricity,” she said. “The roads were clear, but the traffic lights are out and it is pretty chaotic on the roads. Many people reported to us they do not have electricity or water. The mothers are using propane stoves to cook. The people are pretty subdued in getting through their daily lives and doing without little things we take for granted. In the rural areas and in the mountains, there is still a lot of destruction and a lot of debris from the hurricane.”

Baggerly gave the university leaders her play therapy kit so its staff could continue working with local children, and the professors and Urban Strategies have requested that her group return in the future.

“We’d like to do that,” she said. “A lot of the children still have upsetting images in their mind and are trying to find hope and peace. They are trying to be strong but they need to heal. For them it’s like walking around with a broken leg, but without a cast. It’s not healthy. We need to provide that structure, for their mental health. We’d like to seek private donations to provide additional training and services to professors, mental health professionals, teachers, parents and the children of Puerto Rico.”

With the demand for basic needs and rebuilding on the island so significant, Baggerly said mental health care overall is largely unmet, and that can have long-lasting ramifications.

“Their mental health needs and their emotional needs still must have some support,” she said. “It impressed upon me our responsibility as global citizens, and as U.S. citizens, to help our territory of Puerto Rico. We saw FEMA passing out water and food, but my responsibility as a global citizen is to provide mental health support to those in dire circumstances. It’s also to be grateful for the basics for electricity, running water and for having a roof over my head. You recognize how grateful you are for what you have. It changed how I will do my holiday spending. I will make more donations to Non-Government Organizations.”