June 2014. What began April 12 as a forest fire at the edge of the city quickly raced down the slopes of low-income sectors of Valparaiso, reducing 3,000 houses to ashes and leaving 12,000 people homeless. Today, in the aftermath of that devastating blaze, community organizations are intent on turning tragedy into an opportunity for transforming their neighborhood.

One of few buildings left standing on Cerro Las Cañas, the area most affected by the blaze, is the community center, whose director Mauricio Salazar graduated from EPES 3rd International Training Course on Popular Education in Health two years ago. The center has become the hub of emergency response activity, serving lunches to 300 people daily, distributing aid, coordinating volunteers and providing a site for neighborhood meetings.

The Las Cañas Community Center will be key to setting in motion the Comfort for Kids post-disaster psychosocial support program for children and women that EPES adapted in Concepción after the earthquake four years ago. EPES also will help neighbors winterize and improve the flimsy emergency dwellings the government is issuing, while also empowering women as leaders.

First, however, the community center’s windows must be installed, the bathrooms and kitchen repaired, and basic furnishings acquired to enable the building to be used to carry out the programs.

The disaster exposed substandard living conditions and rampant poverty, while tragically confirming experts’ warnings less than a year ago that the area was susceptible to a major fire. Residents don’t want to rebuild their former precarious housing. With support from EPES, neighbors hope to seize the opportunity to build a more dignified community that projects their lives into a new and brighter future.