Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Un Techo Para Chile

So I finally had the opportunity to join the large efforts of re-construction
and volunteer with the country’s biggest charity organization in building
temporary housing for earthquake victims. Un Techo Para Chile (“A Roof for
Chile”) is one of the biggest recipients of the telethon funds and government aid
(I finally found out!), and was started by young people to create temporary
solutions for homeless families affected by natural disasters. The group is now
based all around Latin America (Un Techo Para Brazil, etc.), and they exist to
build mediaguas. These are basically one-room wooden shacks that shelter
people from the rain, cold, etc. until they can begin re-building new homes. Thus, to volunteer for them is to build mediaguas, and this is exactly what I did last weekend. The students from my study abroad program and I went to the 6th region to a rural area where the damage was sever. 
Two days + 10 (+/-) people x 4 groups= four mediaguas. Or least, that was the goal.

Turns out Un Techo Para Chile is messy, just like basically every service
organization (or any org) in general. We left Santaigo at 5:30am to arrive in Las
Cabras 2 hours away in time to build on Saturday, yet due to lack of planning and communication, our group didn’t even begin building until 2pm. One site we
were supposed to work at didn’t have the old house completely demolished where the mediagua would go, another family just flat out wasn’t home, our bus got lost, the pre-existing organized groups of 5 people got completely messed up, we didn’t have the right tools and wood for the house… Messy! The thing about nonprofits that I have learned is that it is an almost guarantee that not everything will go as planned, so I understand the “non-success” of the pre-building planning. And who can plan the fact that we finally arrived, we discovered that the site for the mediagua is on top of a thick, 200-year old concrete foundation? Or that there would be another aftershock while we were building that would throw off the foundational posts after we measured tirelessly to get them right? Sometimes the intentions are good but the result is that the original goal is not met. We didn’t finish the roof of our mediagua for our family, and neither did another group in the program. Breaking the layers of concrete, brick and stone took the whole first half of the day, the construction manual we were given had incorrect information about the building process, and as first timers, we just weren’t fast enough to finish the house by Sunday night. The good news is that the family that was receiving the house had many skilled members, so they said they would finish the roof themselves another time. However, it was disappointing to leave them with an unfinished project.

Building mediaguas for Un Techo Para Chile is an interesting relief tactic.
The money and time it will take to build the goal of 40,000 mediaguas before the winter and rainy season just weeks away is hefty, and it’s pretty certain that the overall goal will not be reached. Besides that, the system of receiving a mediagua is highly political; those who are the most needy do not necessarily receive their housing first, but those who know someone in the local government or in the organization are. My family in particular was definitely in need, however they did already have 1 mediagua in the backyard, a large portion of their old house was still standing, and they are planning on receiving 2 more mediaguas in their front yard too. I also notice that they were watching TV with their satellite dish inside their existing house. On the other hand, there are still families living in tents in other parts of the country that, to me as a (potentially ignorant) outsider, seem more desperate than the family I built for. However, I am reminded that poverty looks different everywhere you go and is cannot necessarily be judged from the outside. The family I built for lost the entire front part of their house in the earthquake, plus valuables and household items, and although they were in high spirits when we were there and helped us build, you could tell they seemed absolutely worn out. There was the grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, aunt and uncle and two kids all living under the same roof from what I could tell, and when hearing them describe their experience then night of the earthquake, I cannot imagine the terror of watching your house crumble before your eyes. Of course they deserve and need a mediagua. But how do you prioritize the levels of suffering?

In the end, I am very glad I went and do plan to go again. It will be much
easier now that I know how to put together the mediagua and the work that goes into it. I still keep praying for all those families who are still waiting, and might be waiting for still a lot longer.

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