A Volunteers View: Report From the Relief Effort

By Josh Prudowsky

Josh is a health educator from Chicago (USA), he travelled to the EPES Center in Concecpión in mid-March as a volunteer. This is his report.

March 17, 2010 — I had been living in Valparaiso for several months when the earthquake hit. I immediately contacted EPES, which I had gotten to know in January as a participant in their two-week international course. In fact, I had visited the EPES Center in Concepcion as part of the course and had already met the staff and community there.
I was confident that whatever task they put me to, EPES would be on the ground supporting the affected communities. They would be working not only to address the immediate emergency but also to rebuild and strengthen social organizations for the long term.

We travelled all night to reach the EPES Center Concepción, traversing makeshift roads to circumvent damaged highways all along the way. My fellow volunteer was Mónica Maldonado, a community organizer from the northern city of Iquique who trained as one of EPES first health promoters back in the 1980s.
Five minutes after we arrived, I was put to work loading boxes of food into trucks to distribute to families in the neighborhood.

Josh helping to unload truck of emergency relief aid.
Josh helping to unload truck of emergency relief aid.

As we went house-to-house delivering the boxes, people told us their experiences during the quake and tsunami. The people we heard from were still in shock, still frightened. Some were sleeping with their clothes, ready

to run out of the house in the event of another quake. Many people said they feel as if the ground under their feet is constantly shaking. And in many cases, it is, because there have been scores of aftershocks, and some have been quite strong.

One problem on everyone’s mind is that employers have begun demanding that people go back to work, but few people are ready to take up their normal routines. The selfemployed have other worries, like the family we met whose small bakery was totally Josh helping to unload truck of emergency relief aid.
destroyed and who now need to generate the new resources to make repairs and get started again before they can re-employ their workers.
Later that same day, Monica and I accompanied the EPES staff in visits to the community health promoters who have been working with EPES for years. These women have been active in their neighborhoods, identifying individual and families with urgent health care needs (infants, elderly, people with injuries and/or chronic illness) and helping EPES to reach them. EPES also distributed emergency health care kits among the health promoters, with basic supplies and instructions to treat common ailments like gastrointestinal problems and headaches. Previously, EPES had put together and distributed hundreds of information fliers on safe water, post-earthquake shock and general disease prevention.

The next day we travelled to Coronel, an economically-depressed former coal-mining town on the coast where EPES got its start in the region in the mid 1980s. We were overwhelmed by the scenes of quake destruction, with broken roadways and toppled power lines all along the route.

Josh with volunteers unloading boxes of food and hygiene kits for  earthquake victims
Josh with volunteers unloading boxes of food and hygiene kits for earthquake victims

But as we entered the town, we were met by a procession of children on bikes and foot, singing and dancing in a mini-parade organized by the community to lift people’s spirits. Men with shovels and power drills working along the road momentarily halted their efforts in order to cheer the children on. Everyone we talk to agrees that the children of these communities have received a tremendous physical and emotional jolt from the chaos of the first few days and the lingering sense of loss. Municipal services here are working to restore power and water, but the emotional needs of these children are not as easy to detect and remedy. Fortunately, EPES will be able to address this need through counseling programs that is is busy organizing and which will start within the month.

One thing that struck me in Coronel is the sense of new community and unity that the quake appears to have provoked. One family told us how the tragedy made them get to know neighbours they had never spoken to before, and how these new connections are helping everyone to get on with the rebuilding.

Water pipes ripped up.
Water pipes ripped up.

Dichato, a fishing village about 40 minutes from Concepcion, was one of the towns most severely affected by the tidal waves. February is the height of the tourist season in Chile, and in Josh with volunteers unloading boxes of food and hygiene kits for earthquake victims Water pipes ripped up. the days prior to the quake, Dichato was full of visitors enjoying its traditional way of life and shoreline restaurants serving the daily catch.

Today you need a special military permit to enter the town. And when you get there, instead of tourists you are greeted by emergency tent shelters and families lined up for boxes of food.
At seaside, people are still combing through the rubble, finding family pictures,

silverware and toys.
Marcos, a local fisherman we stopped to talk to, told us of his first impressions upon returning to his house after the tsunami flooding. “Instead of my house, there were piles of wood, shards of glass and metal pipes. My house was gone, and in its place was a pile of trash.”

Bags to deliver to Penco
Bags to deliver to Penco

As winter quickly approaches here in the Southern hemisphere — and the winters here in southern Chile are wet and cold — families are still living in tents up in the hills of Dichato. Most tents will not withstand the heavy rains. One family whose tent is set up in crowded campsite shared their worries about the threat of disease from the rats that have invaded the area. People don’t know when the tents will come down and more solid housing, even if temporary, will be available. Local schools were wiped out and, so far, no one knows when they will be repaired or even where their children will be placed in the interim.

Tomorrow we will be making another delivery of 200 food boxes, a task that EPES is coordinating with a committee of local churches and ecumenical
groups. This is short-term aid, and this short-term aid is sorely needed. But there is so much to be done to rebuild over the long-term, and to repair the social fissures that the earthquake has exposed.
Photos by Josh Prudowsky
Bags to deliver to Penco

Viva la escuela EPES

We are still glowing from the experience of our first International Training Course on Popular Education in Health! What an intense and incredible two weeks we had. From the positive feedback and praise we received, it seems the course went beyond everyone’s expectations. I believe now more deeply than ever that EPES has an important and strategic role to play in training new generations of community health workers, church workers and activists. There is such a hunger for understanding how to do popular education, how to generate spaces for participation and empowerment and how to address the underlying causes of poor health. We have gained so much experience in these 28 years!

THANK YOU ALL for promoting the escuela, supporting a student, participating in a conference call to help us plan the initial course ideas and all of the other ways in which our circle of friends supported this new initiative.

From the more theoretical presentations of Ron Labonté on the social determinants of health to working with the community health teams to design and carry-out a community action in the local market to dancing the cha la la to evaluate a session to learning about mainstreaming gender in health planning and walking the camineta del poder to learning EPES´ model of training to playing and evaluating many of EPES educational games to being challenged by Pastor Lisandro Orlov to think about the role of faith communities in the struggle for health and dignity to visiting the Park for Peace to designing their own individual projects based on the experience and learning during the program….the escuela was an intense and engaging experience.  We taught our methodologies by having the participants experience them and they loved it. The graduation ceremony was similar to how we graduate health promoters with cards read out loud with descriptions of each person written by their classmates….the ´lagrimometro´ (tear-meter) as we call it at EPES was off the charts.

We had 20 participants aged 23 to 50 from 8 countries –Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Kenya, Peru, Chile, Canada and the United States.  They are all linked on the EPES Escuela 2010 facebook and a listserve that we created together to share news and stay connected.  We heard ideas and requests for EPES Honduras…EPES Kenya….the need for ongoing support for community health groups and enthusiasm to send their friends and colleagues to next years´course.

EPES Traing January 2010
EPES Training January 2010

We have received many notes of appreciation and enthusiasm from participants but let me share this one to give you a sense of the feedback:

I want to first tell you how informative, dynamic, and inspirational the EPES school was.  I have attended many workshops about popular education, public health, community organizing and nothing comes close to my experience with EPES.

The EPES staff is really on another level that I have never seen before.  So brilliant, amazing facilitators, and so humble, really blew my mind. I could go on and on, but I hope you get my gist, I really loved my time I spent with you.      Josh

We are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to launch the escuela and we are confident and hopeful that there will be many more in the future.