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Can volunteers shut down Chile's slums?

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

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.