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A Note from Natasha: Reflections from Canoa

Reflections of Natasha’s visit to Canoa and the Saman Project, Written by Sarah Luke

Natasha Verkley, Hearts of Gold’s Executive Director, says that the relief work for the 2016 earthquake devastation can be broken into two parts: the response phase (reacting to urgent needs) and the rebuild phase (supporting long-term sustainability projects).

The response phase means chaos. It means quickly ignited compassion, canned goods, mattresses, and bottled water flooding into the coast. During the urgent response phase, $1,000 from Hearts of Gold went to earthquake relief each day for the first seven days.  As the information and details continued to roll in it became obvious that this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint: it was time to get down to business and work towards long-term sustainability projects in the rebuild phase.

In June of 2016 Natasha arrived to Canoa to observe and collaborate on the Saman Project, Hearts of Gold’s most active relief efforts during the rebuild phase. Hearts of Gold’s mission is to work with local Ecuadoreans to build back the coast better by being on the ground to be certain of where funds are going ensuring worthwhile projects are properly funded.

During her time in Canoa, Natasha observed that many of the people devastated by the earthquake were people who didn’t have much to begin with. There were people that even what they did have wasn’t theirs; it was rental property. One fisherman who lost his house to the earthquake is now renting from a hostel in the area. To pay his hostel rent he’s had to get a job working for the hostel. To keep his job at the hostel, he’s had to quit his job fishing. He not only lost his house but his job. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in the devastation, and he’s asking “How do I rebuild my life?”

Enter Saman. The project was started by a group of people including one kind donor who gave his land for the two-year project so that earthquake victims could have a safe space to grapple with grief and learn livelihood skills, including Spanish and English literacy as well as how to build with bamboo. After living in government-funded camps or on the road, all the earthquake victims wanted was a space to cook and to cease to exist solely as government handouts and to take charge of their lives again.

All of the families living in the Saman Project’s transitional shelters will have their personal plans for doing just that, along with the professional psychological, emotional, and spiritual care offered by the camp. They cook in the communal kitchen; the children chase each other on the community playground and take photography classes; they take their pets to the pop-up clinic in front of the tents. The point is not to make people so comfortable that they don’t ever want to leave when the time is up but rather to return autonomy to the people now. Every Sunday there’s a community meeting and the residents set rules like No drinking on camp. As Natasha says, “Let them be the experts. No one knows better than the people themselves.”

“If I wanted people to know one thing about the earthquake disaster relief, it’s that it’s not over yet,” Natasha presses. The two-year Saman project is just beginning. People are still crying out for water in the more remote areas. People are moving slowly into a place of healing. The greatest needs right now on the camp are for transportation and electricity. The relief crew needs trucks to move both people and supplies to and from the camp. The camp is currently powered by a single electrical generator as the city lines have not reached Saman yet. Incoming donations will immediately fund those projects. The crew has come a long way from the initial chaos, but they need to keep the ball rolling. Every dollar makes a difference. Every dollar to the right organization brings people one step closer to taking back their lives.

Sarah Luke is a Hearts of Gold Intern and Volunteer at the El Arenal Foundation. Sarah is a visiting scholar from Furman University in South Carolina where she studies Spanish and Poverty Studies.

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