The Educacion Popular en Salud (EPES, Mercy Corps' local partner) Center is humming with activity. In its community hall and playground, scores of school teachers, psychologists, social workers and community leaders are crawling, jumping, pulling, pushing and cheering one another in games with names like Treasure Chest and Streets and Avenues.
It lifts my heart to hear these laughs and shouts. Six weeks ago in this same playground, we were distributing emergency health kits and water to stunned families in a state of shock. Their homes and livelihoods had collapsed or been washed out to sea, looting was rampant and an 18-hour curfew was in place.
Today is the third and final day of the Mercy Corps training sessions here at the EPES Center in Hualpén, one of many Chilean cities devastated by the February 27 earthquake and tsunami.
Trainers Eric Loc and Fabian Vinces worked with children after Peru’s 2007 earthquake. As this was their first visit to Chile, they spent a week visiting the areas hardest hit by the catastrophe, adapting the Mercy Corps programs to central and southern Chile’s triple disaster of earthquake, tidal wave and unrest.
They brought with them two programs: “Comfort for Kids,” based on storytelling for children age 7 to 10, and Hacia Adelante (Moving Forward) based on games and sports, for children age 10 to 14.
One of the first changes to be made was the name of program. EPES adopted the term “recuperación emocional” (emotional recovery) to describe these new programs for psycho-social support to children to deal with post-earthquake trauma. But we were so taken with the idea of providing comfort that we packed the “Telling My Story” workbook into a backpack with crayons, toothpaste, toothbrush, a flashlight and a stuffed animal toy for each child.
The second program, Hacia Adelante (Moving Forward), uses games and sports to encourage communication and restore self-confidence. As I write this, the EPES office in Hualpén is jammed with tote bags of soccer balls, volleyballs, marbles, nets, cones, jerseys, caps and a referee’s whistle — a full kit for every adult mentor who promises to reach out to children here, in Coronel, Penco, San Pedro and Talcahuano.
At the end of today’s training session, 55 enthusiastic mentors have signed up to work with young neighbors and students over 10 weeks of exploration and expression to dissipate frightening memories and lingering fears.
Maria Herrera, paramedic and health promoter from Huachicoop, will work through her Junta de Vecinos (neighborhoods meeting) at the local community center. She is excited about the Mi Historia del Terremoto y Maremoto de Chile (¨My story of the Earthquake and Tsunami in Chile¨) the twice-weekly workshop for younger children to narrate and illustrate their own stories of fright, hurt and confusion, as well as their dreams and realizations. Fabian Vinces, the therapist in charge of the training, says that narration is vital to recovery because, “what is unspoken remains unresolved.” By writing their own stories, “children recover a sense of what is their own, because they lost everything and now have to share everything.”
“Children cannot always explain their feelings, and adults are too preoccupied to listen,” Maria believes. One of the children she wants to see participate is her granddaughter, whose house in Santa Clara, Talcahuano was flooded by the tsunami.
Adriana Maureira is the President of the Hospital Penco Lirquén community council. Among the children who will benefit from mentoring is her 12-year-old granddaughter, who continues to vomit and cannot be left alone since the quake yanked her from sleep, bed and home in late February.
Early in the sessions, conducted in the EPES Community Hall from April 14 to 16, these mentors-in-training shared their own stories of shock, grief, escape and survival. Behind the common denominator of loss, their stories tell how — as in Tolstoy — every family lives disaster in its own way. All continue to live with its consequences, in material loss, strained family relations, sudden joblessness or sharing crowded living quarters with relatives and strangers.
In La Higuera, 50 families from the low-lying Penco neighborhoods of Gente de Mar, Cerro Verde Bajo and Playa Negra have been relocated to one-room wooden boxes with wide open slats and no windows, already defenseless against the coming cold winter rains and wind.
Like Sandra Mora and Zunilda Barrales, who lives with her 104-year-old grandmother Maria Luisa Calfuqueo, the women here have reacted with strength and intelligence to the disaster that swept them off the coastal strip, onto the Cerro del Cura hill and into an emergency camp in the elegantly-named Villa Bosquemar across from what is possibly the only church left standing in Talcahuano. Like most women, they feel they must hold in their own grief for the sake of others more vulnerable than themselves, and especially their children.
EPES will be working with Villa Bosquemar to help residents winterize their “temporary” homes with material support. (Sandra Mora shudders at the government’s estimate of a three-year wait before being considered for permanent housing.) EPES will also help them equip the community hall and train residents in first aid and other health care skills, including prevention of the respiratory illnesses that southern Chile's winter always brings.
There is no self pity here. Only a sense — with the earth still shaking noticeably several times a day — of security randomly shattered and immense vulnerability. This glimpse of fragility behind the face of stoical Fuerza Chile (“Chile Be Strong”) and similar public campaigns reaffirms something important: we cannot dismiss the emotional impacts of the quake, even if the rubble is now being cleared and a certain pretence of normality restored.
The two Mercy Corps programs will be conducted in schools, community halls, churches and playgrounds over the next three months. To accompany the process, EPES has hired Zicri Orellana, a community psychologist and University of Concepcion lecturer experienced with youth, thanks to a grant from the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers Union of New York State. After that, they can be replicated among the families, women and others who need to process their earthquake experiences through self expression or team work.