Into the Relief Shelter

This week I was a little under the weather (OK, the weather here is 83 every day, but the sun is hot), so I didn't make it back out to the villages like I had wanted. But, I did make it into the relief shelter in the pueblo here.

Since the earthquake struck on April 16, people have lived in this government established relief shelter in the ground of the old local high school. It is under constant military guard, as well as guards from the national police and government officials. So, the first step was to make it through the guards and get to know the people running the shelter. For that, the sisters who are here were helpful, as one went with me to introduce me at the door for the first visit. After that, things went smoothly.

The relief shelter is at the top left, within the old high school grounds, where you see the blue tents.

The relief shelter is at the top left, within the old high school grounds, where you see the blue tents.

Inside the shelter is a large dirt courtyard with about 40 or 50 blue tents set up where families are currently living. Some have moved on to a new home or living arrangements, but after 8 months there are still over 40 families without a place to live. Many of them used to rent, and now there is nothing for rent, and they don't have the means to buy a home. The government is working on providing homes through private and public organizations that make small homes, but the nature of the process is long and drawn-out.

Inside the shelter. There are over 40 families still living in tents without a home yet.

Inside the shelter. There are over 40 families still living in tents without a home yet.

The tents are small, without much for any personal privacy, and can at times house 6 or 7 people, sharing cot-like beds or sleeping on the floor. Bathrooms are public, and tents have no kitchen - meals are served at regular hours every day. The shelter is surrounded by walls on all sides, as the people are living vulnerably, and everyone must check in and out when entering or leaving. There is a tent for a doctor, one for recreation, a space with a large TV for everyone, and a common eating area. It is an institutionalized form of living.

On the first visit on Wednesday, one of the government staff who is in charge of overseeing how everyone is doing accompanied me as I went from tent to tent to visit all the families. I introduced myself and mostly just listened and ask a few questions. I also brought some candy canes with me that I gave out to the families. It was good to simply visit and meet the people who were there and listen to them, and it gave me an opportunity to think about any next steps.

I decided to return on Friday and I had to let the staff know a day in advance. So I setup a plan for a few hours of activities with the kids, and on Friday I spent two hours doing activities with the kids, and then was invited to eat dinner with everyone afterwards. I was glad to be there, and they were glad I came, especially the staff and the kids.

One of the things I brought was the fake snow I had. That's always a huge hit, even with adults. We played some games with the kids, and the head of the police joined in to help out - she's really good with the kids and participated the whole time. Then I put on some games we could play on through the computer and TV, and that led to a few videos. I found a couple of good short videos for kids online, with themes about overcoming fear and flourishing.

I also had bought a bunch of art supplies so that the kids could draw a picture of their tent and everyone and everything inside. We used foamex templates to make the shape of the tent, and then with glue and markers and pencils and whatnot, they were able to lay everything out and make their own drawings. This is a big thing: for a child to draw out their own reality of their home and have it displayed next to their neighbor's as well, all together. It is a big step in forming self-identity and community, both within the home and within the shelter. They got to take their pictures home as well, and they got a few candies, too!

When I saw how the police staff were with the kids, and considering I'm leaving until February, I decided to leave all the supplies I had bought with her so she could do more activities. Sheets of construction paper, foamex, plus lots of glue, scissors, colored pencils and markers. I also gave her copies of different videos I had and other dynamic games you can do with the kids. And, of course, I left a bucket of snow!  All told, outside of the snow, the supplies only cost $30, and can make a lot of fun activities for the kids as a community in the shelter.

You won't be surprised when I say they are all wondering when I'll come back again. If and when I come back in February, I'll be sure to return. Wouldn't it be great if we could do something regularly, hmmmmm???