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Can volunteers shut down Chile's slums?

Chilean non-profit aims to transform entire communities of slum dwellers.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Camila Escobar is no ordinary college student. She goes to parties, studies and hangs out with friends. But she just spent her winter break doing something many of her peers would never consider: building houses for slum dwellers.

Escobar, 19, is a volunteer at “A Roof for Chile” (Un Techo para Chile), a non-profit organization set up by Jesuit priest Felipe Berrios that constructs emergency housing for slum dwellers.

Camila is one of over 15,000 volunteers who spend their winter breaks and summer vacations building these transitory wooden shacks (called “mediaguas”) for the most impoverished families in Chile. Several times a week, she leaves her comfortable home in a wealthy suburb and heads for the outskirts of the capital to visit her designated community. There, her efforts go beyond construction as she coordinates social programs and guides families in their transition from being the most marginalized of the poor to an organized community fighting for their rights.

The effort began in 1997, when Berrios gathered a group of university students to help build mediaguas in Curanilahue, an extremely poor coal mining town located almost 400 miles south of Santiago. He signed up volunteers to spend their winter break there building 350 200-square-foot wooden shacks.

It was such a success that more students joined and set a goal of building 2,000 mediaguas by the year 2000. They achieved it. That year, A Roof for Chile began a massive fundraising campaign and opened regional offices throughout the country.

From the 106,000 families living in 972 slums registered by the Housing Ministry in 1996, A Roof for Chile was pivotal in reducing the number to 20,000 families in 533 slums this year.

“We have First World infrastructure, with families who still live in the Third World. This has got to change, and it depends on us to change history,” said Berrios during a recent visit to a newly built housing development for former slum dwellers.

Beyond the volunteers, the real driving force behind A Roof for Chile is a powerful dose of mysticism, group spirit and a deep sense of social responsibility.

“It’s not work for work’s sake. I do it because I want to help the people I love, and accompany them throughout the process. You end up becoming friends and I love going there. More than work, it’s a life option,” said Escobar, who is studying speech therapy.