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"Now I know what to do if it happens again"

June 3, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of EPES  </span>
    “I love to read and draw and here I can get over being afraid, especially about tsunamis,” five-year-old Abigail Figueroa said about the Comfort for Kids program. Photo: courtesy of EPES
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of EPES  </span>
    Wepu Re Pu, a new cultural association for urban families from the Mapuche ethnic group, conducts a workshop for children between the ages of 7 and 11. Photo: courtesy of EPES
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of EPES  </span>
    Photo: courtesy of EPES

It’s been a marathon of logistics and preparations, but we are now bringing our tailored-for-Chile version of Mercy Corps workshops to some 800 boys and girls in the towns of Talcahuano, Penco, Coronel, Hualpén, San Pedro de la Paz and Chiguayante.

The coastal towns that ring the city of Concepción were dealt a double blow on February 27: a pre-dawn earthquake of unprecedented power (8.8 on the Richter scale, among the highest ever recorded) followed by three towering walls of water.

In launching the “My Earthquake/Tsunami Story” (Comfort for Kids) and “Moving Forward” sports program in schools and community centers, we’ve heard a lot of personal accounts from the parents, teachers and community leaders we’ve trained as mentors, and from the children themselves. Even children whose homes escaped damage tell vivid accounts of relatives or schoolmates losing homes or fleeing from the flooding.

But as the workshops advance, we’re beginning to hear something new from the children.

Abigail Figueroa, age 5, says “I love to read and draw and here I can get over being afraid, especially about tsunamis.”

Camila Flores, 10, finds the workshop “lots of fun. We write in our workbooks, color, paint our family, draw what happened to us in the tsunami the houses in the water, what we felt.”

“While it was happening, I thought we were going to die,” she says, “but now we learned that it was an earthquake.”

“The earthquake was a surprise for me, because afterwards, everyone came together, all the neighbors came by to see how we were, people went door to door to see how everyone was doing.”

Wepu Re Pu, Talcahuano

Abigail and Camila are participants in one of two workshops led by Millaray Casteñeda Meliñan in Talcahuano. “How many of you felt that your mother or father was angry, anguished, sad, irritable?” she asks the children, ages 7 to 11. “Remember that none of these things is your fault.”

The workshop is organized by Wepu Re Pu, a new cultural association for urban Mapuches. The name means “building roads” in Mapudungun. Co-founder Ivonne Nahuelpan explains how the workshop entwines two types of recovery: emotional and cultural.

Interspersed with the workbook activities, Millaray teaches the children songs, greetings and numbers in Mapudungun. Many children know the legend of Tren Tren and how, in ancient times, he helped the Mapuche run into the hills as the waters rose. “To us, this is a story about surviving a tsunami,” says Ivonne.

“This program has been a gift to us,” she adds. “Our children suffered greatly. They need emotional support. Our culture and cosmovision can help them, too.”

Villa Centinela, Talcahuano

The Villa Centinela Community Hall is located in a housing project in the hills of Talcahuano. Mentors Mery Caro and Herminda Guzman, mothers and community leaders, are eager for the first session to being. While waiting for the children to arrive, we discuss recent news reports that have everyone talking: researchers say that the region can expect a grade 7 aftershock within the next two months.

Some 20 children show up, accompanied by their mothers. The mentors explain how the sessions will help children reestablish the four pillars of feeling safe: People, Place, Ritual and Routine.

They show mothers and children the backpack that each child will receive, packed with pencils, eraser, case, flashlight, a stuffed animal, toothbrush, toothpaste and the "My Story" workbook.

Reestablishing routine is very important, one of the mentors explains. “I bet some of you forgot to brush your teeth after the earthquake,” she chides the children, before catching herself. “Of course, none of us had water then, either,” she laughs.

Rosa Medel Elementary School, Coronel

When the coalmines closed in Coronel, fish factories moved in, bringing poorly paid jobs and a terrible stench. The Rosa Medel Elementary School is located across from a cannery and next to a coal-fired power station in Caleta Lo Rojas, where Educacion Popular en Salud (EPES) ran its first program nearly 30 years ago.

Of the school’s 230 students, 30 lost their houses.

This poor school was made poorer still once it lost windows, walls and most of its bathrooms. The indoor gym where “Moving Forward” is being held was repaired with a donation from local industries.

We meet with school principal Carlos Segundo Torres, who reports that his students are still afraid — especially when mothers run to the school to fetch them with every aftershock. But students and parents are growing less apprehensive.

Second grade teacher Jovina Torres credits the workshops for calming nerves. “Just the other day, there was a tremor and the children all looked up at me as if saying ‘OK, we can deal with this.’”

Math teacher José Alarcón took the EPES/Mercy Corps training and then prepared elementary and PE teachers to conduct the My Story and Moving Forward programs. Some 60 parents attended the launch, Alarcón tells us, which was “an absolute success. You could see it on the faces of the children.” The volley and soccer balls, a net, a whistle, t-shirts and more are much-appreciated addition to the school’s meager sports gear, too.

Backpacks with EPES and Mercy Corps logos are all around the schoolyard. But for most children, one item is stored safely at home: the flashlight.

“I take mine to bed with me,” says Carla Copeli, a third grader, “and my mom sleeps there, too.”