GATLINBURG (WATE) – More than four months since the wildfires in Sevier County, the pain is still out there, and people, including children, are still putting their lives back together.
The images they saw November 28, 2016, live on in their minds.
“All the places looked like lava,” said Nikolas Verito, a student at Pi Beta Phi Elementary.
Nikolas and his family narrowly escaped the wildfires.
“The left was on fire, the right was on fire,” his mother Darlene Verito remembered. “I was screaming that we were going to die.”
Their family survived but lost their home and two businesses.
Darlene Verito is still suffering from her own PTSD, but she is also having to focus on helping her kids get through it.
Nikolas has noticed a difference in his peers.
“I see people every now and then they’ll be sad and stuff about the fires and how they lost stuff,” he said.
His mom has noticed some changes in him.
“He has his days where he’ll just put in some earplugs, go outside, write in a book, listen to music, going for a walk, things that he’s never done before. He’s more reclusive,” Darlene Verito said.
Those are potential signs of traumatic stress in children. Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center is offering free therapy for all children whose families lost homes in the fires. There are about 130 of them at Pi Beta Phi.
“A lot of fear and aggression they don’t know where it’s coming from, anxiety that they just don’t know where it’s coming from. We also know that if that’s not treated they’ll find ways of self-medicating in time,” said Donna Koester, founder and executive director of Safe Harbor.
Many are not only dealing with the loss of things, but also friends like Chloe and Lily Reed.
“Going to school is sad, not having Chloe and Lily, seeing them on the bus sometimes, and not seeing them in the hallways,” Nikolas said.
One of the things Nikolas said helped him start to move forward was getting back into school at Pi Beta Phi Elementary and being able to talk it out with his friends.
The school system says they are still trying to help those kids and families out. They released the following statement to WATE 6 On Your Side:
“Teachers and staff working with students impacted by the wildfires are moving forward to keep the school climate and culture as normal as possible. However, we are aware that support resources may be needed by students and their families. With that in mind, the Sevier County School System has shared information about community resources available to our families to include Cherokee Health Systems, Helen Ross McNabb Center, and Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center of the Smokies. In addition, guidance counselors interact with students on a daily basis to provide support as necessary.”
“There’s all different levels and phases, and it’s kind of like an onion and peeling it off and getting to where the root of it is, the core of it is, and addressing it,” Koester said.
Koester said recognizing the warning signs can take time. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a list of common reactions:
- Feeling of anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others (including pets)
- Children may have increased fears and worries about separation from family members
- Young children may become clingy to parents, siblings, or teachers
- Fears of wildfires spreading or new ones starting
- Distress and anxiety with reminders of the wildfires (e.g. burning smell, sounds of sirens or helicopters, burnt landscape and buildings)
- Changes in behavior:
- Increased activity level
- Decreased concentration and attention
- Increased irritability
Sometimes it can take months or even years for it to manifest, so facing it now is important. Koester is also reminding parents to be patient despite dealing with their own trauma.
“You have to remember these are the parents that lost everything too, some of them jobs, certainly all their homes and belongings, so they’ve got their own level of traumatic stress,” she said.
They show the children things to help when they feel a panic attack or anxiety coming on, like breathing exercises.
She said what helps is focusing on the survival and the future. Koester said kids take cues from adults around them, so a positive attitude can transfer to their emotions. As the anniversary of the tragedy nears later this year, Koester said it is important to focus on celebrating moving forward.
“It’s looking to the positive things that come with that and at the same time honoring and learning from what happened,” Koester said.
As they adjust to life after the fires, for the Verito family it is about taking it one step at a time. They reopened their Jeep rental business this week.
The residents of Gatlinburg continue to remind the world that they are “Mountain Tough.”
“We’re all grieving as a community and it’s how do we come together as a community to rise above it, and we will. We shall. And these kids are very resilient. They’ll be fine,” Koester said.
If you would like to contact Safe Harbor to get your kids into therapy, you can call 865-774-1777 or visit them online at http://www.safeharborcac.com/.