Fires in Valparaiso: Volunteering with Relief Efforts (Pt. 2)

Two days of fire, 17 people dead, over 2,000 homes destroyed, 850 hectares burned, and over 8,000 people now homeless. 

Residents walk carrying their belongings in Valparaiso, April 13, 2014.
My sister-in-law is involved with a local parish, the Salesian Parish of Juan Bosco in Valparaiso which is one of the shelters and donation centers in the city. Welcoming over 160 fire victims the night of the fire, the next morning we went straight to the parish to assist in sorting and providing clothing, collecting food, water, hygienic, and other materials, clearing out space in the chapel and school for all of the families.

We walked through the church and school that is on the same grounds, and entered the large rooms where the families were temporarily staying. As we walked in and saw likes of tables with government officials interviewing families, everything suddenly became even more real seeing and speaking to individuals who lost everything in those fires. During the day, there were some tears, but the look on their faces was shock and distance. Francisco and I began our day sorting and assisting people through the heaps and boxes full of clothing. ”What do you need?” Their response was a gesture looking at themselves and admitting, ”This is all I have.” Some people barely even responded with a look in their eyes as if they were somewhere else.

Donations
Cars and trucks loaded with all sorts of donations arrived at the church on a constant basis during the whole day, along with volunteers from other parishes, Boy and Girl Scouts, and larger organizations like Techo, the Red Cross, and a list of governmental organizations. The president, Michelle Bachelet made an appearance as well.
While we were helping unload one of the trucks on la Avenida Argentina, I watched how one hills went from white to black smoke to bursting in flames and finally consumed drowning the city in ash rain. Crowds began to form in unwavering attention with their mouths agape in shock, pain, and sadness. Volunteers shook with tears as a few got word that their families were being evacuated and that their homes were already lost. We kept rolling with the punches while Valparaíso was on fire and the nonstop sound of sirens in the streets. Traffic out of the city was packed, and a few times firetrucks, some making out from Santiago, were stuck in foothills just before making the climb – a most frustrating sight.

Ash

The only positive thing that I’ve experienced during this catastrophe is how compassionate and cohesive people are during times of communal desperation and need. Countless individuals donated and assisted the effected families. It impressed me how all of us congregated at one place, simply acted in-sync and organized together with little to no instructions within the parish and with two other donation centers just a block away. It was as if there was an unspeakable communication among strangers, acquaintances, and friends who all knew what to do and how to help our neighbors.

Forming chains to move donations
We formed chains passing truckloads of goods, cleared out a whole floor of the school and the chapel to accommodate for more fire victims, but as a volunteer, much of the help was coming from hundreds of individuals who parked at the front of the church and left boxes upon boxes full of groceries, blankets, water, fresh meals and bread, and so much clothes we had no more space and had to direct people to the donation centers at the next street over.
The Chapel
Valparaísco is strong, and we are a community. We demonstrated that, but there is much more to be done, and we can’t do it alone. Unfortunately after the second fire, the number of people at the Parish of Don Bosco shelter has nearly doubled, and there are many in the area.
If you would like to donate goods (most places are no longer accepting clothing), volunteer, or donate money to organizations assisting the victims, please see this list of local centers.
Read part one of this post here: Fires in Valparaíso (Pt. 1), about how the fire unfolded for us.
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