'Let's hope it won't take another earthquake to continue this work'

December 10, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of EPES  </span>
    Over the past nine months, EPES staff — part of which is pictured here — has trained 100 teachers and community leaders in seven quake-stricken cities to deliver 55 workshops of approximately 10 sessions each, reaching nearly 1,500 youths between the ages of 6 and 14. Photo: courtesy of EPES
  <span class="field-credit">
    courtesy of EPES  </span>
    In Lirquén, the girls were grateful for the opportunity to play soccer through the Moving Forward program, because “usually, the boys don’t lend us the ball.” Photo: courtesy of EPES

It’s the beginning of summer here in southern Chile. The weather is spectacular and everyone has something to be happy about. Schoolchildren look forward to the end of classes and the start of their long vacation. Workers look forward to extra days off at the end of the month, especially when accompanied by the Christmas bonus that almost all employers provide. Families look forward to visits from relatives and friends, good cheer and hopefully a special meal, no matter how humble.

At the Educacion Popular en Salud (EPES, Mercy Corps' local partner in Chile) Center in Concepción, we are also in a celebratory mood, albeit “con dulce y grasa” (“sugar and lard,” the Chilean equivalent of bittersweet).

On the one hand, we’re bidding farewell to participants in the emotional recovery programs we’ve been coordinating since the devastating February 27 earthquake and tsunami.

Its been a big job: over the past nine months, we’ve trained 100 teachers and community leaders in seven quake-stricken cities to deliver 55 workshops of approximately 10 sessions each, reaching nearly 1,500 youths between the ages of 6 and 14. The workshops adapted Mercy Corps' Comfort for Kids and Hacia Adelante (Moving Forward) methodologies of personal narratives, games and team sports to help children recover.

Our goal has been to provide support to the youngest survivors of the natural disaster, help them restore confidence in themselves and their surroundings, and prepare them for the uncertainties of the future. We are delighted that this cycle of recovery is coming to a close because our greatest measure of success is not to be needed anymore.

But even as these emergency programs wind down, the vulnerabilities that underlie them still exist — and, in many cases, have deepened.

The 8.8 earthquake that rocked central and southern Chile took hundreds of lives and left thousands of people living indefinitely in emergency camps. Beyond the immediate damage, the earthquake revealed schisms of Inequality and poverty in Chilean society beyond the scope of short-term reconstruction efforts.

From emergency to opportunity

In the initial stages of this project, we heard many moving stories of solidarity and survival in the face of natural disaster. But as the months passed, we began to hear new stories, no longer about coping with the emergency but about coping with lives getting back to “normal.”

At the closing ceremony for a Comfort for Kids workshop held in a shelter for battered women in Chiguayante, the mother of a participant sought us out to give us hugs and say: “We are so grateful to EPES for reaching out to our children. So often, because of our difficult circumstances, our children are treated as if they don’t matter.”

In Población Nueva Candelaria, in a sector of San Pedro de la Paz notorious for drug-trafficking, EPES-trained facilitators from the Fundación Paula Jaraquemada incorporated Comfort for Kids and Hacia Adelante into school programs for children at social risk.

Based on their experience at Sgt. Candelaria Perez Primary School, facilitators Ruth López and Paulina Ruiz added more structured sessions and group dynamics This included working with youngsters to develop “ground rules” for the workshop. Among them: “Don’t throw papers,” “Don’t fight,” “Don’t hit the teachers” and “Don’t swear.” The tangible reward for complying with the rules: each child received a new backpack with school supplies, a stuffed animal, toothbrush, toothpaste, a flashlight and his or her own “My Story of the Earthquake/Tsunami” workbook.

The third graders told us that what they liked best was drawing the emotions produced by the earthquake on the faces in the workbook. This makes sense in light of the facilitators’ observation that most have problems reading and writing.

The fifth graders loved the Hacia Adelante sports program — girls, especially, felt vindicated in their right to play soccer, which, they noted, is not only for boys. Thanks to the soccer and volley balls, nets, whistles, markers, T-shirts and other equipment donated to the school by the program, they will now have more chances to form teams and learn to play together.

In the primary school in Lirquén, social workers from the Housing Ministry’s “I Love My Neighborhood” urban renewal program helped the gym teacher implement Hacia Adelante. The playing field here is surrounded by pines and has magnificent views of the ocean, so calm today, so treacherous the day it claimed the children’s houses.

The children like Tuesdays best because that’s the day they play the games that have taught them, in their own words, “to share more,” “ to work together” and “ to express our emotions better.” Here, too, the girls were grateful for the opportunity to play, because “usually, the boys don’t lend us the ball.”

According to facilitator Paulina Trincado, Hacia Adelante has improved the children’s academic performance, added new excitement to the school day and helped break down barriers based on gender.

Co-facilitator Ana Luisa Vargas believes the program has tremendous potential to prevent bullying in the schools — a growing problem in this community of high unemployment and social vulnerability. She would like to see it should be implemented nationwide, and not just in response to the earthquake.

“Let’s hope it won’t require another earthquake to continue to do this work,” she says.

The camps: surviving winter, building skills

Mercy Corps also funded EPES’ work in Penco’s Camp Ebenezer settlement to help residents get through the winter in leak-proof homes with a bit more dignity. The original roofs on the makeshift emergency shelters were so flimsy that people wrote their names on the roof panels in order to retrieve them each time they blew off.

Although the shacks lack running water and indoor plumbing, they are home to 43 families whose long-term possibilities for definitive housing are unclear. EPES purchased building materials for roofs and insulation, working with the community to identify people who needed special help. EPES also refurbished the Camp Ebenezer community room with chairs, tables, bookshelves and a heater.

The first activity in the community hall was a training course in first aid led by EPES. Fifteen participants began the 10-week course, which covers poisoning, injuries, fractures, burns, convulsions, hemorrhages, animal bites and other emergency situations.

“I am so thrilled with course,” one woman told us. “All my life, I wanted to do something like this. Who could have imagined that I could finally do this because of an earthquake?”

The women were especially delighted to receive their own copy of the book Where There Is No Doctor. EPES also organized and provisioned a first aid station for the community.

As a health educator with EPES for 17 years, the course reminds me of our early work in shantytowns with women living in another kind of “temporary” settlement — land takeovers. EPES organized local health committees, trained community health promoters and helped ignite the spark that led many women to empower themselves and their communities. .

Recently, our work with Mercy Corps caught the attention of the Harvard Public Health Review, which featured EPES as the cover story of its Fall 2010 issue. “When an earthquake struck in Chile,” the article notes, “Karen Anderson and the community health group she founded were the first on the scene — and they’re still there.”

That’s our plan. And, like the women of Lirquén, we hope it won’t take another earthquake to support our work.