Responding to natural disaster

December 2015.- Helping communities rebuild after a natural disaster is a relatively new area of work for EPES in its 33-year history. When in 2010, EPES Concepción found itself at the epicenter of a massive earthquake/tsunami, we conducted relief efforts as we do all our projects: as a long-term grassroots community organizing effort and an opportunity to identify and train community leaders to participate in the rebuilding. Since then, EPES has used this template to respond to two more recent emergencies: the tsunami that hit northern Chile last Sept. 16 and the fire that swept the Valparaíso hills in 2014.


Within days of the earthquake and tsunami in Tongoy, a fishing village in northern Chile, EPES had staff there conducting a needs-assessment among the families hardest hit. Monica Arancibia, a health promoter trained by EPES, interviewed dozens of people to determine their most immediate needs and coordinate
delivery of material relief. This included construction materials to rebuild homes, reapr vendor stands, and replace the cooking utensils that the mostly female vendors need to cater to the tourist trade that constitutes their livelihood.

Photo Credit: Associated Press. Tongoy: Tsunami waves destroyed livelihoods as well as homes.

In Tongoy, EPES administrator Hector Reyes (left), educator Monica Arancibia (center) interview with Alejandra Guerra (right).



In April 2014, a fire of tragic proportions engulfed the hills of Valparaíso, leaving 12,500 people homeless. EPES responded by partnering with a community center in Cerro Las Cañas, one of the neighborhoods most affected, to distribute humanitarian assistance and accompany residents through the rebuilding effort.

A new activity in 2015 was a ten-month course led by local women trained by EPES: the “Women Share with Women” workshop on emotional recovery, self-care and stress management. In August, participants took to the streets to make visible a persistent obstacle to all their recovery efforts: the multiple forms of violence faced by women, from physical aggression to institutional barriers to accessing quality healthcare.

“Jealousy is not part of love. Freedom is.” Workshop participants with EPES staff and ELCA’s Rev. Raquel Rodriguez (center) preparing signs to take on a March Against Violence through the streets of Valparaíso.


Both emergency relief efforts have been conducted with support from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (See related news.)


With the title “Building Resilience after Trauma: Lessons from Chile,” a feature story in Psychology Today (online blog) takes an in-depth look at the ways EPES’ model of community organizing builds resilience.

Posted on Nov. 16, the article is written by psychologist Lisa Aronson Fontes, of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A frequent collaborator to EPES’ work, Fontes was in Chile in October to conduct workshops on domestic violence prevention.

“I have learned life-changing lessons about coping with trauma during the 20 years I have been traveling to Chile to collaborate with EPES,” she writes. “The examples of EPES shantytown health promoters and their neighbors have provided me with lessons that enhance my work with trauma victims in mental health settings in the United States, too.”

Fontes summarizes these lessons as: “Don’t go it alone. Create order out of the chaos. Nurture hope. Commit for the long term because recovery takes time. And reclaim your dignity through helping others.”