FIVE CANADIAN FIREFIGHTERS TRAVEL TO PERU TO SEE CHILD SPONSORSHIP IN ACTION
By Yadira Pacheco, Photography by Philip Maher
CHILDVIEW, Spring 2003 Issue
Fifteen minutes. That's all it took for flames to destroy 124 homes in Ventanilla, a crowded district near Lima, Peru. When five Canadian firefighters decided to respond, they reached for their wallets and their passports.
"Children must not play with matches," says Maricielo La Torre, 4, a sponsored child from Ventanilla, Peru. She is solemn but eager to share her new safety tip. It's a lesson that Canadian children are taught at an early age. Thankfully, most don't learn about fire firsthand; Maricielo was not so fortunate. Three years ago, this little girl watched her home - a one-room shack - burn to the ground. Today, she's still afraid of fire.
On a November morning in 1999, Maricielo, then just a toddler, was at home with her mother, Liliana, who suddenly heard neighbours running and yelling for water. Liliana went out and saw a neighbour's home in flames. The fire was spreading quickly toward her house. "They had kerosene cylinders in there that they used to sell. Everything exploded. I ran inside and took Maricielo. I wanted to take our belongings out, but people told me to keep away since I was pregnant at that time. The bomberos (firefighters) came, but they couldn't do much." Minutes later, the blaze engulfed her home.
The houses in Ventanilla, Peru, are a firefighter's nightmare. Made of reeds or scraps of wood, they're built one next to the other. Inside, families use kerosene stoves for cooking and heating.
Liliana and her husband, Renzo, lost their few meagre possessions - their one bed, the children's clothes, and their few toys - but they gave thanks. "Like my husband said, the material things we can buy," remembers Liliana. "I just thanked God because my children and husband were safe."
With the help of their family and neighbours, Renzo and Liliana rebuilt their home with construction materials provided by World Vision. But Liliana had to coax Maricielo, and her older sister, Lucero, to leave their grandmother's house, where they stayed for two months until their new home was finished. "The [girls] had a traumatic experience. They certainly remember it. When they see fire, they get scared."
Unfortunately, this would not be Ventanilla's last fire. This sprawling district of almost 170, 000 people is one of the poorest and most densely populated on the outskirts of Lima, the capital. Peru's declining economy and years of political violence have resulted in widespread poverty. More than half of Peru's 26 million people are destitute. Many people abandon their farms and move to cities to find a better, more secure life. Few succeed. With no skills and no land, most end up living in slum areas like Ventanilla.
Three of the Canadian firefighters met their sponsored children. Aron Reppington also met his mother-in-law's sponsored child, Maricielo La Torre (centre, with red crayon).
Ventanilla is located just a few kilometres from Peru's Pacific coastline, but the area does not have running water or a sewage system. This district includes 67 small communities - clusters of shacks perched on sand dunes. There are no paved roads. Homes are fashioned from thatched bamboo-like reeds or scraps of wood. Newspaper, plastic, or cardboard cover the cracks in the wall to block the sand from blowing in. Inside, families use kerosene stoves to warm themselves and to cook. These tinderbox shanties are a firefighter's nightmare. One spark can ignite a whole neighbourhood in minutes.
And that's exactly what happened a year ago. Two children accidentally set a devastating blaze while playing with matches near their family's kerosene stove. Four members of Ventanilla's volunteer fire department responded, but their 23-year-old truck got stuck in the sand. When they finally arrived, they didn't have enough hoses or water to control the fire. More than 120 homes burned in 15 minutes. Fortunately no one was killed, but 604 people were, as Peruvians say, "en la calle" - left out in the street with nothing.
At the Ventanilla fire hall, children greeted the Canadians waving homemade flags. For the next six days, the men shared their expertise and experience
Since 1998, World Vision has helped more than 600 fire victims in the area, providing them with food, clothing and other necessities. World Vision has also organized community campaign to increase awareness about fire prevention - hardly a priority for a community that struggles for basic needs.
Last year, firefighters at Mississauga, Ontario's station 114 heard about the double-disasters in Ventanilla through World Vision. In the memory of a crew member (see "In Kevin's honour" below), they wanted to help. In October, five firefighters (Captain Alan Hills, Tom Gojak, Andrew Melville, Aron Reppington, and Jamie Stark) travelled to Peru to hold training sessions for the Ventanilla volunteer fire department - 40 men and 13 women who risk their lives for little glory and no pay.
The volunteer firefighters were eager to learn from Andrew Melville (centre) and his crew members. "Our eternal thankfulness to them for their generosity," says one Peruvian firefighter. "The knowledge and experience they shared with us were very well received."
The Peruvians warmly welcomed their Canadian counterparts. At the fire hall, dozens of children greeted them, waving homemade Canadian flags. For the next six days, the Mississauga men shared their expertise and experience with the volunteers. "The training exceeded our expectations in every sense," says Captain Raul Thais, of Ventanilla's Fire Station #75. "It wasn't completely new to us, but it was specialized. For instance, we didn't have any training in car accident rescues, and this was very helpful."
The Canadians also taught fire safety and prevention to children in Ventanilla, using Spanish colouring books and stickers they had brought along. They even found time for some role playing.
The firefighters brought Spanish colouring books and stickers to teach the Peruvian children about fire safety and prevention. Here, Aron Reppington's wife, Jodie (one of two wives who travelled with the crew), teaches the children how to "alto, al suelo y rueda" (stop, drop, and roll).
"Stop, drop, and roll!" Andrew Melville shouted to 40 Peruvian children gathered before him at the fire station. He was trying to teach them what to do if their clothes were on fire. The group looked at him blankly. "Alto, al suelo y rueda," repeated the interpreter. The children, including the sponsored children, giggled as they followed Andrew's instructions. They really started to laugh when Andrew rolled on the ground right along with them.
Three of the firemen are among 2700 Canadians who sponsor children in this needy area, and they had the opportunity to meet their sponsored children while in Peru. The firefighters saw firsthand how child sponsorship improves nutrition, health care, and education for children like Maricielo La Torre, who is sponsored by Aron Reppington's mother-in-law.
In addition to fighting fires, the Ventanilla firefighters also respond to many car accidents along a four-kilometre stretch of highway that runs through the area. Each week, there are 10 fatalities. So the Canadians, including Jamie Stark, conducted first-aid training.
Maricielo's father, Renzo, is a stevedore - a casual worker, like 90 per cent of the men here. From two until seven in the morning, he loads and unloads chickens from trucks. He earns about $8 a day - less than the average household monthly income of $200. The family pays for electricity and water that is delivered by trucks, which rumble through the area daily. There isn't enough money left to properly feed Maricielo and her two siblings, Lucero, 6, and Aldahir, 2.
Child sponsorship helps provide Maricielo, Lucero, Aldahir, and many other children with the food and health care their parents simply cannot afford. Each morning, 1200 sponsored children are served a healthy breakfast at a community kitchen. Many of their mothers also attend World Vision classes on preparing balanced meals - essential in a community where 25 per cent of the children are malnourished. Sponsored children have regular medical checkups to monitor their growth and weight.
Education is free in Peru, but many Ventanilla parents can't afford notebooks and pencils. So child sponsorship pays for school supplies, as well as teacher training and renovation of the area's four primary schools. "I am glad to see the remarkable work that World Vision is doing to support these families," said Captain Hills after meeting his sponsored child, Melva Yalta, 12, and her family. "This has been a life-changing experience."
Humbled by the poverty they saw in Peru, several of the firefighters plan to "do with less so we can help more." They hope the fire prevention skills they shared will help families in Ventanilla hold onto the little they have. And Maricielo? She promises not to play with matches simply because she never again wants to see her "toys get burned up like chewing gum."
The crew brought donated equipment, including a manual Jaws of Life for the Ventanilla department. During a training exercise, Captain Alan Hills demonstrates how to properly immobilize someone with a possible neck injury.
MY 12-YEAR-OLD HERO
By Captain Alan Hills
There is a bond there that forms with a child through sponsorship. As sponsors, we write letters, send gifts, and pray for children whom we only know through photographs. But when Melva Yalta and I exchanged our first greetings in Peru, that bond became a friendship.
Melva is unlike any Canadian pre-teen I know. This bright 12-year-old has many responsibilities. Between her studies, she helps her mom cook and clean and looks after her younger brother and sister. She also spends a lot of time at the World Vision centre, organizing events and teaching crafts to other children. Somehow she does all this with a wonderful, caring smile.
I was humbled by her smile. She struggles each day for the bare necessities, which I take for granted. Melva's five-member family lives in a home smaller than my garage. The dirt floor dissolves into mud during a rainstorm. However, this family is rich in love and generosity. They treated me, a stranger from far away, to a bowl of Jell-O and a Coke, which were obviously saved for a special occasion. Why is it that the poor seem to give the most?
It's funny. Through sponsorship, I thought I was giving Melva hope, but in many ways she has given me hope. I am so very proud to have met Melva and learned of her life in Ventanilla. Melva is a true hero in her community. She's my hero, too.
SUFFER THE CHILDREN, POVERTY IN PERU
More than half of Peru's 26 million people live in poverty due to the country's declining economy and years of political violence.
48 per cent of urban school-aged children and 62 per cent of rural school-aged children suffer from malnutrition.
Unsafe drinking water and a lack of sewage systems cause diarrhea, skin infections, and other health problems among children.
Poor families are forced to make all of their members work, including children as young as age six.
Street children are a critical problem. The stress of poverty and unemployment often causes parents to abuse alcohol. For many Peruvian children the "freedom" of the streets is more attractive than physically or sexually abusive parents.
About 100,000 pupils drop out of primary school each year, a number that doubles at the secondary school level.
Unemployment is on the rise: 85 per cent of those who work only have temporary jobs.
50 out of every 1000 children die before the age of five.
IN KEVIN'S HONOUR
The tragedy of September 11, 2001, devastated firefighters across North America, including the crew of Station 114 in Mississauga, Ont. The five-member "A" shift wanted to commemorate the victims of 9/11, so the firefighters decided to sponsor a child.
During a subsequent visit to World Vision's headquarters, they pored over photographs of 10 children. These men, who constantly make life or death judgements, couldn't decide which child to help. Finally, firefighter Kevin Bailey, 34, broke the stalemate, choosing a boy from Indonesia.
Sadly, Kevin died two weeks later in an off-duty rock climbing accident. "Kevin was a firefighter with a passion for life and a love of humanity," said the crew's captain, Alan Hills, in an interview with the Canadian Firefighter and EMS Quarterly. "In lieu of flowers at his funeral, his friends and family were asked to make a donation to World Vision. We started thinking how we could honour Kevin's memory and get even more involved as a crew."
The men contacted World Vision to find out what they could do. They learned about Ventanilla, Peru, a poor district where a fire had recently left 604 people homeless. The crew felt an immediate connection. They wanted to help the local volunteer fire brigade to better cope with such disasters. Together, the crew members - Captain Hills, Tom Gojak, Andrew Melville, Aron Reppington, and Jamie Stark - decided to travel to Ventanilla on their own time and at their own expense with World Vision's Destination Life Change (DLC) volunteer program. (Through DLC, Canadians can teach English, build homes, care for orphans, or serve in other ways in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and Romania.)
Before their October trip, the men approached other fire stations and local corporations for donations of equipment, which the Peruvian firefighters desperately needed. They collected firefighting gear, Spanish training manuals, and rescue equipment, including a manual version of the Jaws of Life. "We come from a full-time department with an annual budget of millions of dollars, the latest high-tech equipment, vehicles, and personal protective gear," says Captain Hills. "The Ventanilla bomberos (firefighters) receive some funding from the National Fire Service of Peru, but they rely on local fundraising to make ends meet."
The trip ignited a partnership. "Something special always happens when you mix a bunch of firefighters together. And our week of training with the Ventanilla firefighters was magical," says Captain Hills. He was impressed with "this small volunteer fire department, [which] strives to meet the needs of the community every day with pride, dignity, and dedication."
Their counterparts in Ventanilla were thankful for the training and for the Canadians' generosity. "This was our first experience in receiving brother firefighters from overseas," says Captain Raul Thais. "We didn't expect to receive so much equipment, but we are really grateful because it was needed for so long."
On their last day together, all the firefighters signed an "Act of Brotherhood," committing to work together for their communities' safety. Kevin Bailey, they agreed, would be proud of all they accomplished together.
© Copyright 2003 Childview
For more information about overseas volunteering opportunities through World Vision's Destination Life Change program, call 1-800-268-5863 or visit the Web site (www.destinationlifechange.com)