Can volunteers shut down Chile's slums?

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.

The volunteers don’t need to be architects or construction workers. They organize in squads run by someone who’s built mediaguas before.

“It’s not hard. It’s tiring, but fun and enriching, because you’re in contact with the families, you have lunch with them, they participate in the construction, and we create really strong bonds with one another. We are one of the few institutions people trust, because they realize that we don’t expect anything in return,” said volunteer Sofia Wielandt, 21.

The emergency housing is only a first step toward helping the slum dwellers out of poverty. The program also builds their communities collectively and by training individuals. Slum dwellers elect representatives and work with the volunteers throughout the year in what the program calls “social habilitation,” which includes assistance and training in health, education, labor and legal matters.

About 85 percent of all donations to A Roof for Chile — mainly monetary, but also in construction material — comes from businesses, the rest from individual donors.

“The social habilitation is much more important than the house itself, because the goal is not to go from the slum to their new neighborhood in the same conditions: poor education, kids selling drugs, unemployment. The idea is that they improve their quality of life as a whole,” Escobar explained.

Rosa Marquez and her extended family used to live like “little animals,” as she described it, crammed into a one-room, rundown shack made of wooden posts, cartons and plastic in a slum with no running water or electricity. Now she has two daughters in college.

“My husband lost his job and we could no longer afford to pay rent. So a generous man loaned us some space in a camp where we could stay for a few days,” she recalled. They have been there for 15 years.

Ten years ago, volunteers from A Roof for Chile approached Marquez's community and signed up all the families that needed emergency housing units. A troop of volunteers went in and in just a few days built mediaguas using what they could salvage of their houses, plus new material. But that was just the beginning.

Volunteers visit the slums to assist children and teenagers with schoolwork and help with the pre-schoolers. They also serve as intermediaries with government institutions, network with job training institutes to open slots for slum dwellers, help families obtain loans for micro businesses, and guide them through the legal system so they learn their rights and how to defend them.

With the help of the program, Marquez studied food handling. “But more than anything, I went to learn to pronounce and speak well," she said. "I only got to fourth grade and didn’t have much character. But now, thanks to the project, I get by pretty well. I go to offices, talk to important people, and defend my rights as a woman and a mother."

Her daughter Carleyn was 9 when the first volunteers arrived at the slum and began helping her with schoolwork. “If it wasn’t for them, I would have been another pregnant teenager dropping out of school," said Carleyn, now 21. "They were our superheroes. They would sacrifice weekends with their friends and parents to help us study, and later to talk to us about birth control. They encouraged us to study and value ourselves as individuals."

Those volunteers are now lawyers, engineers and journalists — and continue to help her. When Carleyn graduated from high school they offered to chip in for her university tuition. "But I got a scholarship for my good grades, so it wasn’t necessary," she said. Carleyn was recently appointed by A Roof for Chile as her community’s education director.

The last stage of the process is the construction of permanent homes, with the help of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals that represents the community in obtaining lands, applying for government housing subsidies, and all the related bureaucracy. The community decides where to move to and what kind of housing it wants.

“The living conditions in the slums today are the same as in the past, with the difference that before, we were invisible. We didn’t exist on maps and there were no public policies for us. Life was more precarious because we were ignored,” said Cecilia Castro, president of the National Corporation of Slum Leaders, “We Are Chileans, Too.” Castro, who started working at age 14, lived in a Santiago slum for 20 years before moving into her permanent home in 2008.

Now, Rosa Marquez is rushing to save up the $1,000 deposit required to obtain a subsidy by the end of September for her family to move into a solid home, with a front garden, a patio and real windows. She has gathered half of it by organizing lotteries, bingos and other events in her community. “When I get my house, the first people I am going to invite over for dinner are our volunteers. They are my angels; they’ve meant everything to me,” she said.

A Roof for Chile’s slogan now is “2010 Without Slums.” It has launched an intense fundraising and public outreach campaign to eliminate all slums in Chile by the country's bicentennial celebrations in September 2010. And the effort has moved beyond Chile: The model is now being replicated in 15 countries in Latin America under the name A Roof for My Country.