Finding community among strangers

Looking back and forward / Winds & Waves / November 2016

I’m sitting in a small space that could be called a kitchen because it has a stove and still smells of roasted lamb but lacks any other evidence of kitchen use. It is in the small Chilean town of Futaleufu, known for its powerful and famous river, in Chile.

My partner Scott, a rafting and kayak guide, hopes to get on the water. We have been travelling for five months and are starting a month-long climb back to Santiago and our flight to California. I don’t know if one can go on a six-month long trip in any country without coming home changed in some way. Chile started out for me as a place for Spanish lessons and a professional opportunity but is ending as a meditation in humility and the importance of community.

I had e-mailed Isabel de la Maza of ICA Chile and Ken Hamje of ICA Peru in July last year. I had asked my father Richard Alton about who I could contact in South America who might need help with Technology of Particiption facilitation and he immediately thought of Isabel and Ken. I recently acquired a Masters in Social Work and since I live in California, I needed to hone my Spanish. I had spent too many hours at a desk in Spanish classes with meager results and decided to take a plunge and do a complete immersion for six months. Both Isabel and Ken were warm to the idea of me helping out with their programs but the work in Chile was more immediate and so I bought a ticket to Santiago. The work there was only for two months but I figured I would explore the country and keep learning for four more.

The first cultural hurdle I faced was the Chilean habit of doing things at the last minute. More accustomed to extensive planning, I e-mailed Isabel every day with questions about visas, places o stay, when and where the courses were, the course materials and how much Spanish did I really need to facilitate, without getting my answers. I later found she simply hadn’t received a lot of answers herself. Five months into my trip, I am still surprised at how last minute a lot of things are here. Chileans don’t like to plan. Actually they don’t even have a word for plan, they use the English one. So I decided the trip would be an opportunity to practice being “in the moment”.

On landing, I was pampered by Isabel and her insanely knowledgeable mother Ana Mari Urrutia. I was picked up at the airport, taken to an amazing lunch and told to rest for a couple of days before starting work. This was not in my character. So I decided to take a more personal relationship with the city before getting down to business. I ate empanadas; walked the river; ran the parks; sat and watched; danced cumbia; and sat and watched some more. My dad used to tell me about this wall he sat on in Brooklyn where he watched life go by for hours. It’s how he got to know the community. When I was young I didn’t really get it but now I understand.

Watching taught me a lot but I learned the most about the people of Chile through the courses as well as my struggle with communicating. My biggest challenge was facilitating in Spanish. I am a good facilitator. I can mold techniques to fit individual and group needs and I am sensitive to group dynamics. But it threw a stick in my spokes to have to struggle to simply understand people and express myself. Add to the mix that they are physically and mentally handicapped, many with speech impediments and I had myself a challenge. I leaned on humor and my ability to poke fun at myself when I got stuck. The participants would go so far as to applaud when I hummed a tune while thinking of a word I needed. They loved it when I used facial expressions and hands to express myself. We all had challenges. Mine may not have been so visible but it allowed the participants to relate to me on a different level.

Two incidents taught me a lot about working with Chileans and people in general. I was helping with a regular Saturday for youth with physical disabilities,mostly cerebral palsy, and noticed a pretty girl who rarely spoke.

It was easy to spot the shy ones in the group of about 20 rambunctious young people. She always showed up on time to the courses and would sit patiently but rarely volunteered to read or present work.

Weekly Saturday courses in Santiago with youth who have been undergoing physical rehabilitation.

On my second Saturday, I was looking up the long list of Spanish words I didn’t know in the dictionary when she pulled up a chair and sat next to me. I looked up surprised. She immediately started asking me about where I was from, my hobbies and my family. She told me she had been hit by a car while walking with her two-year-old daughter a year ago and fell into a coma. The doctors told her family she would be a vegetable for the rest of her life. A month later she was sitting up in bed. Six months later, after extensive physical therapy, she was standing up on her own. Her memory and speech had been affected and she had a hard time holding on to information and communicating but was getting better. I choked up listening to her story and realized she was not shy — she just had to exercise her memory muscle. Her challenge was to listen and remember. This course was the social part of her rehabilitation. Like all the other participants, she was isolated from society save for the Saturday courses. That’s when I realized exactly how important these day-long courses were for the young participants. It wasn’t necessarily about action plans or facilitation skills. It was the shared laughter and new numbers in the cell phone that proved there were people who cared about you.

Proud smiles from mothers and daughters to go along with diplomas.

I facilitated a course in a low-income community outside Santiago called La Granja. The participants were from various residential programs for people with mental disorders. Most were struggling with schizophrenia. This may have been the hardest course for me. Scott helped and at first was confused by what we were trying to do. He saw participants struggle with the introductory name game and was skeptical about introducing more complicated methods. There were a couple of participants who were higher functioning and able to navigate the materials. They seemed embarrassed when others would go on rants about the war or interrupt a presentation to tell us a story from their youth. Yet everyone sat loyally in that small room for the four days. They lit up when we formed the action plan around a day to the beach. Hands flew up to volunteer to help raise funds and leaders were nominated to take charge of food, transport and other logistics.

By the end of the course, Scott and I realized that the victory was in communion, in the gathering of people who were otherwise isolated. This experience, compounded with my experiences with the Saturday courses, led me to understand that people with mental and physical disorders are still ostracized in Chile. They are put aside, ignored and have few opportunities for social participation. This course was one of the few times they would interact with strangers, let alone make new friends. With every hug I received while handing out diplomas I saw the look of pride in each face. There is more to methods than the methods themselves. There is process, a growth within each individual that can be felt only from within. There is the struggle to silence inner voices to hear what others have to say and to focus on coming together.

As I sit in this kitchen months later it is easier to tease out the moments of growth from my time in Santiago. I know I will return to California a more patient, well-rounded facilitator. Mostly though, I will come home humbled by the fact that I still have so much growing to do. I will come home with a suitcase full of names and faces of people who had so much to teach and give. I will come home knowing that what matters isn’t necessarily who brings the material and organizes the dates, but who shows up. It’s about the gathering, about community formed from strangers.

This was the gift to me from Isabel, Ana Mari, Joaquina Rodriguez and Eduard Christensen, who I was lucky to work with at ICA Chile. I was offered the opportunity to plunge into the lives of Chileans in a way that I would not have been able to do as a tourist. I have deep gratitude for this opportunity and have been changed.

Kay Alton, a social worker in Northern California, was raised in the ICA communities in Kenya and Brussels and completed her ToP facilitation training in Minnesota.

Please send comments or question to kayalton@gmail.com.

This article first appeared in the August 2013 issue.