A community repairs its broken dreams

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Feature by Luis Tricot

Valparaiso sits staring at the Pacific Ocean, its multicolour houses hanging from its 37 hills, indifferent to the rain and wind that sweep through the city's narrow, winding streets.

In Chile's oldest port, you are never too far away from the sea or the sky, and you are far too close to poverty. Since its leading industries abandoned the city for Santiago, its fortunes have slipped and it has become capital of the one of the country's poorest regions. One group of residents has refused to surrender to poverty though. Ten years ago, they founded Taller de Accion Comunitaria (TAC), a community action group with a special focus on children.

TAC was built by the active participation of local residents and neighbourhood associations. A total of 8,000 people have volunteered over the years. There are no full-time staff. Instead, about 50 volunteers are on permanent rotation to ensure that the centre is functioning.

Consistent with the idea that children should be able to dream of a happy future, TAC helps the community to repair its broken dreams. It acts as a vehicle for the community to build what they want.

Developing self-reliance

Patricia Castillo, a founding member of TAC and its current director, says adamantly: “People should learn how to fend for themselves. That's why we promote a concept of development that relies on the power, creativity and initiative of the local people and their organisations. Nothing can be more important than actively participating in the building of your own future.” Castillo has much to be proud of. With the assistance of schools, local health centres and churches, TAC has built a library, an amphitheatre, a play area and an ecological garden in its site in Cordillera Hill.

The library provides an invaluable service to the community, especially to children from the two local schools who do not have money to buy books or need help with their homework. It was built by volunteers, its 2,000 books gathered from neighbours and other schools. The centre's house, once ramshackle and set in a filthy ravine, is now bigger and more colourful. The small garden has been transformed into an ecological garden with native plants on terraces that resemble those cultivated by the country's indigenous Andean people for centuries.

The ravine wasn't just cleaned up of its rubbish and debris, but transformed with an amphitheatre, where people now enjoy a variety of cultural shows. It was built entirely by volunteers in just one year--a noteworthy engineering feat. Some financial help was provided by the Fund for the Americas, but the biggest contribution came from the efforts of volunteers. They knew that they were not just building an open air theatre for concerts, but a physical enhancement to their neighbourhood.

Responding to community needs

It has not always been easy. Castillo recalls that only a dozen neighbours came to the first meeting. But slowly they earned the trust of the community and today, more than 1,500 children participate in TAC's activities. Juan Didier, a TAC volunteer and history professor, explains: “The idea is that children should learn about local history, feel proud about what they have and learn how to manage their own space.”

But the centre is not cut off from the rougher side of its neighbourhood. The building is surrounded by large and beautiful murals painted by volunteers--and also by a growing number of young people using drugs and alcohol. In response, TAC has designed a drug prevention workshop to make children and teenagers aware of the dangerous effects of drugs. Its longer term goal is to help children understand that there is a future for them, that poverty, domestic violence or unemployment need not be a permanent condition of their existence. TAC tries to provide people with the means to improve the quality of their lives. It provides workshops on a range of subjects for children--child rights, ecology, cooking, theatre, history, architecture, manual arts and construction, among others.

Youth supporting younger children

Many of today's present leaders in TAC attended its workshops as children. One is Christian Amarales, a vivacious 19-year-old.

He says: “We were very small then and just wanted to play. TAC organised summer and winter schools to help keep children off the street. For me TAC was like a house in a tree, a kind of secret club where I could play with my friends. It was, and still is, my second home.” Amarales and his friends were expelled from classes because they did not behave, but “Auntie Patty”, as Castillo is affectionately known, had faith in them. “So, little by little we began working, cultivating a small garden, cleaning up the ravine, painting the house, building a small square outside the premises so that other children from the area could play. We have done everything ourselves,” he says.

Cultivating respect and self-esteem

Manuel Manriquez, 16, attended TAC workshops eight years ago. Now he is in charge of a special workshop for young children. He teaches them songs, games or takes them to the beach or a museum.

”I teach them that material things are not important, that we may not have much but we share the little we have. Respect for other human beings is the most important thing I have learnt here at TAC and that's what I try to convey,” he says.

This might be why “TAC children” are known to be happy children. Many come to TAC every day after school to play, work or use the library. Soledad, 11, has come “all my life”. She says proudly: “I know everyone here”.

The attention children get at the centre makes them feel that somebody cares and respects them. So while TAC has cultivated native plants and trees out of a rubbish dump, it has, above all, also cultivated people's self-esteem.