Trinity student reports: a Techo experience

February 20, 2023 in Featured News, News

Four Belvedere College SJ alumni, currently studying in Trinity College Dublin, volunteered with the NGO Techo International in the slums of Santiago, Chile, in October 2022. Below, Mark Heanue reflects on the infectious passion of the Chilean people and the extraordinary dedication and enthusiasm of Techo volunteers. This is the third of four reflections by Belvedere alumni involving the collaboration of Techo International and Jesuits in Ireland. Click here for A never-ending story: Belvedere alumni in Chile » and Jesuits in Ireland & Techo International ».

Homage to Chile by Mark Heanue

First there was one; an anomaly, a strange interruption to our walking slumber. Then a second roared past, horn tooting incessantly. Then a third, a fourth and a fifth and soon we were in sight of the crowd, surging together, beating their horns and pickup truck doors like the sun beating the dry riverbed in front of us, and breathing light onto the concrete blocks no longer white washed and oppressive like they had once been but decorated with haphazard graffiti conveying messages of anger, hope, frustration, resistance and raw energy. Pure passion! Colo-Colo (Santiago’s biggest football team) had won the country’s championship.

It was this passion that first struck us about the Chilean people and its representation to us that first day wandering around Santiago lulled by the arid heat that would go on to reflect my experiences and shape the rest of my thinking about the trip. From the initial rudeness and almost disagreeableness of it to the intoxicating collective fervor that wrapped itself around you, it was almost like a metaphor for how the people were; initially cold (in comparison to other South Americans we were told) but often deeply caring and zestful once you got to know them. Techo in Chile embodied this passion – from their strategic and effective approach to helping those in need, to the very makeup of the volunteers themselves.

Techo’s impact can be broken down into three parts; their impact on campamentos (shanty towns) communities, volunteers and society as a whole. Techo’s approach would seem nuanced (and it is) if I were to try to explain everything I learned about it but it’s quite simple when you break it down without going too much into the details. Its focus is primarily based on building up the strength of communities in areas where previously people were disunited and alienated from the rest of society, struggling on their own to survive by any means. These people, after organization and relationship building with the volunteers, can then decide what their community needs and then communicate this to the volunteers who in turn work to bring about the goals of the collective mind. It is unlike anything I have experienced with charities in Ireland which seem to focus more on immediately providing the necessary facilities and provisions to aid people in poverty on a case by case basis rather than on infiltrating isolated communities to establish bonds and what the true desires of the people are. In other words, what I experienced previously to Techo was detached, it lacked the same passion.

Mark also spoke to Ramiro Perez, Director of Techo Europe, during his time in Chile. He said:

“I learned that in Santiago in Chile there’s a problem where people are not receiving emergency housing. This emergency housing can be easily built. It only takes a couple of volunteers to dedicate their time for a couple of days and you can learn the foundation of a house pretty quickly. If you have enough help and the right guidance, problems can be easily addressed.

I suppose I had a general idea of what it was going to be like and what I saw sort of matched my idea – the derelict site, inadequate infrastructure, infrastructure that didn’t look that safe, children playing around this infrastructure, and clearly more needs to be done to actually make it a safe, liveable place for families.

It’s essential that more awareness is created so people know how to volunteer because it’s actually very simple. You can offer to volunteer for a week where you can help build houses and you’ll be surprised by what you can accomplish. Once you’re there with Techo, you’ll know what to do.”

There was something profoundly humane about Techo because it’s approach was not simply to throw something at a problem or to develop superficial relations with the people it “served” but to move far past the state’s (and often much of the rest of society’s) attitude towards the people in the campamentos as ‘non personas’, ghosts that come, build and disappear again, but to truly know them and work with them, to empower them. This intimacy between Techo and the communities was clear to me on many occasions: when we built a bedroom for Ignacia whose mother welcomed us strangers because of who we were with and explained how Ignacia was bright and enjoyed school but was bullied by the other girls and how her own room would raise her confidence, or when her father joined to build with us, or when Valentina (a volunteer and a friend) told us of how her purse had been robbed and how the community rushed to catch the perpetrator and returned it to her, or when I was assured I would be safe as long as I wore the Techo t-shirt.

The relationship between Techo and the campamentos communities would not be possible, however, if it were not for the characters of the volunteers themselves. These people are young, compassionate, courageous, tough and extremely determined people and this was immediately evident to me the first day I met them. Picture a table surrounded by youth deliberating and reporting diligently on their work and its results, discussing and debating, typing rapidly and scribbling furiously, evidently taking joy in their work without being carried away in its mirth. There would be periods of intense focus occasionally interrupted by laughter, solemn words, voicing of solutions and sometimes (we were told) tears that regular exposure to the horrors of the campamentos and a high and tender regard for fellow beings will inevitably induce. There were countless examples of the noble traits of the volunteers from the (often shocking) stories we heard and ones which we witnessed; Valentina greeting everyone she saw in the campamentos, regardless of how welcoming they appeared, Chris’ sincerity in his dealings with the family we built the room for, Manuela’s mother-like care when playing with the children – I could go on.

But these people were not superheroes. They were ordinary youth, often with privileged and sometimes sheltered upbringings, who had found each other through Techo, who motivated and supported each other for the sake of a greater good. Techo, through the volunteers, creates a bridge between Chile’s divided society, between those who have and those who have not, those inside and those who are outside, those who officially are and those who officially are not. They facilitate the transcendence of a division which is not just material and political but something deeper, a division of consciousness, of spirit.

I reflect on when Mark Ryan [Belvedere alumnus] and I hammered relentlessly with the ‘chuso’ (piledriver), or when Lorcan and I set Asai (one of the boys in the campamento we befriended) up for the winning goal for our end of work match, or when I and Cathal, after initially being confused as to what to do in the campamento creche, lost ourselves in the innocent joy of the children’s play and glee for hours and what felt like minutes. When I reflect on all of those moments of fierce passion, I recall the unearthing of something even deeper, an inner peace, like I was being guided by something at my core. It was the same peace I felt in prayer with Benjamin (a Jesuit priest we befriended) or when I had looked out across the railroad tracks above the campamentos and past the old sawmill to the Andes. That peace a person finds when they stand back, stop and think or just simply feel, before taking a deep breath and unleashing themselves back into life once again, without another pause or second thought, knowing that they are being propelled by something much greater… namely, Rama, the head builder and legendary footballer himself!

Conclusion by T. Avram SJ (spiritual mentor)

After their return, the four young men engaged in deep spiritual reflection regarding the matter, considering what commitments they should make to bettering the world. One of their commitments was that they wish for other young men such as themselves to engage in the Techo experience which hopefully would be an annual one, and for which they will help with fundraising via crowdfunding or other means to pay for the flights and necessities and preparing them for what lies ahead. In order for this experience to be lived authentically, the mindset of volun-turism must be avoided, and the mindset of a spiritual quest, and service for the Kingdom of God must be adopted.