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In December 1999, when horrendous floods struck Venezuela, GAIA was working in seven schools in which it was implementing its program "Our Daily Plant". Unable to ignore the implications of the disaster, GAIA spent January and February 2000 helping supply food, medicine and clothes to the thousands of affected people that needed them. In Febraury, we decided to adapt our main program and help the National Director of Education in working in the schools in La Guaira - one of the affected areas. We started running workshops in these schools that was orientated towards such an emergency situations. 

Crisis Corps, a section of the US Peace Corps that is comprised of specialised professionals that act in an immediate relief capacity to a disaster, were keen to help with our work. They also wanted to provide help to those people who had been relocated to temporary shelters and whose lives had been turned upside down. What has followed has been a 2-way interactive process between ourselves and the Peace Corps, each benefiting from the others knowledge and experience, and directing the benefits of such an exchange towards the people affected.  



Interaction with GAIA


In May of 2000, the Peace Corps Coordinator for the project, Henry Jibaja (left), first came out to Venezuela. His attention was to the temporary shelters that were now inhabited by the newly homeless. Together we visited many of the shelters and proposed to run an adapted program of Our Daily Plant that would provide the people with a means of sustainability and give them a chance to learn traits that could temporarily allieve some of their hardship. We found 2 shelters in which to start our work, one in Central Lamas and the other in Simetaca. In June, the first 2 volunteers came out to Venezuela to help us: Shannon Gorman (centre) and Catherine Davidson (right)


The constructive exchange of knowledge and skills that made our work with the Crisis Corps so beneficial stems from their professional knowledge on individual subjects. Shannon, for example specialises in health, hence we have benefited by gaining information which we could re-use in other shelters, in other schools, at other times. At the same time we were able to contribute our medecinal knowledge of plants and use our workshops as a medium for her to give talks. 

Catherine is studying psychology and was able to question the people in the shelters, both youths and adults, about their experience. This provided her with useful research and at the same time provided counselling for the refugees and gave them tremendous help via the opportunity to come to terms with what they had been through. 


Catherine and Shannon stayed until mid August and early September respectively and on August 30th another two volunteers came out, Chad Thomas and Jill Maria Carbone. Both Chad and Jill were health volunteers essentially doing the same role as Shannon had been doing, so, to share a workload - Chad worked with the people in Central Lamas and Jill in Simetaca. Over this transition period at the end of August we had tried to expand our work into a third shelter in Polideportivo. However, our visits there did not get as good a response as we had hoped. Some people were too traumatised, others had adopted a more hostile reaction to the floods, so numbers dwindled. So, instead we looked for new sheltres that GAIA could expand it's work into. We found 3 more shelters by liasing with the "Homeless Persons Association". Jill gave her talks to one of the new shelters in La Lucha and Chad included another new one, Maper, to his work schedule. Both Jill and Chad gave talks in La Almacenadora the fifth and largest new shelter. The presentations given by these Crisis Corps workers in conjunction with GAIA included workshops such as nutritional cooking classes and making personal hygiene products from medicinal plants, and talks on disease transmission, HIV/AIDS, disaster preparedness, drugs, to name but a few. 



Chad and Jill stayed until the end of November and welcomed two new volunteers in October: Becky Harszy, a social worker and Jill Awkreman, an agricultural specialist. However, the nature of the work changed in mid-November when heavy rains fell causing new mudslides and flooding. GAIA entered immediate relief efforts in conjunction with the Crisis Corps volunteers and World Vision to prepare and deliver food, clothing, and hygiene packages to many of the refugee shelters who had once again become displaced. 


Luckily the floods did not alter the course of action for too long and we were soon back to the same work in the 5 shelters and by the end of November, new homes had become available to the residents of the shelters. The relocation was often a long way away from family, friends and homeland - some people decided to stay and make permanent homes of the shelters, but steadily the numbers in the shelters fell. Jill helped in the shelters by initiating the planting of herb, tree and vegetable seeds and teaching occupants recipes that included such foods. We also benefited from her knowledge of micro-gardens (with space in the shelters being a limiting factor) and her contribution, in conjunction with the health volunteers and GAIA experts, in promoting remedies from medecinal plants. Becky worked a lot with the children of the shelters, providing educational games regarding recycling, personal hygiene and talking about feelings - especially confronting a fear of the rain. She also worked in conjunction with the other volunteers to lead shelter residents in talks on conflict resolution, drug abuse, communication and parenting skills.

The Crisis Corps volunteers also spent time each week helping us maintain contact with two of the schools in which we were implementing our project "Our Daily Plant" prior to the floods, and help for which we are tremendously grateful. The last Crisis Corps volunteers left Venezuela in mid-December 2000, having touched the lives of people who will never forget it. Thank you. 




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