Project ALERT goes South… to South America that is!
BEST Foundation program manager Leslie Aguilar is accustomed to receiving inquiries about Project ALERT. She has been responding to such requests for the past 13 years. As Leslie describes it, “It’s just what I do”. However, in May 2012, she received a request from a rather distant location—6,000 miles south of the equator and the world’s longest and narrowest country. It is bordered by Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Have you guessed where? The request came from “Santiago de Chile”.
Corporacion La Esperanza (AKA “Corporacion”), a community-based organization, working in close partnership with the United States Embassy in Chile, was concerned about recent reports, which documented an increase in drug use among Chilean youth. The reports also got the attention of those at the highest levels of the Chilean government including President Sebastian Piñera and longtime Senator Jaime Orpis. “Drug addiction is a serious concern; we need our children to be healthy, strong and educated to guide Chile into prosperity”, says Orpis. “These children are Chile’s heirs and they must be prepared. Drug addiction shortcuts their future and when that happens, we all lose.” Senator Orpis put words into action. He co-authored a bill to require drug prevention education in schools, which recently became law.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CHAMPIONS
Leadership, timing and a tireless champion are often the essential ingredients for change. Chile has this in Ana-Luisa Jouanne, executive director of the Corporacion. Mrs. Jouanne is a veritable force with the skills and political know-how to work effectively across all social and political strata. The Corporacion is widely recognized and respected throughout Chile as a leader in drug abuse rehabilitation. Quite naturally, the Corporacion also has a keen interest in preventing drug use. “We see drug addiction ruining our families every day and we do not have enough resources to help those who need it. Preventing drug abuse is critical. We cannot turn our backs on our children—it is a national problem and we must act to stop this tragedy,” says Jouanne. She has worked tirelessly with Senator Orpis to get drug education into the schools.
Additional support came from Monica Acalde, Cultural Affairs Specialist at the US Embassy. “We have been asked to present evidence to Chilean leaders demonstrating that schools are an appropriate place to deliver drug prevention programs so that this becomes part of every Chilean child’s education. Many (officials) are already on-board with this approach and we want to support them in taking it to implementation,” says Acalde.
Corporacion event manager Viviane Aguirre organized a learning and exploration process funded by the US Embassy and the Corporacion designed to introduce Chile to three of the top programs used in US classrooms. The process included several presentations to government leaders, senators and ministers, as well as, the training of a core group of Chilean teachers so that they could see first hand how such programs work in the classroom.
Fernanda Errazuriz, the Director of Research and Development, at the Corporacion investigated various school-based programs and was particularly excited about Project ALERT. The primary language in Chile is Spanish and since the Project ALERT lessons and activities have already been translated into Spanish, and the videos have Spanish subtitles, the Corporacion found that to be a big plus. Thus, plans began in earnest to bring Project ALERT and two other programs to Chile for local experts to examine more thoroughly with an eye on adaptation and development of a new curriculum that is right for Chile.
The BEST Foundation turned to Pamela Luna, DrPH, MEd, to showcase Project ALERT and spearhead this process. With many years as master trainer and curriculum contributor dating back to the program’s development days with RAND, Pam was perfect for the job. There were a few minor hitches here and there, working with another country and with people whom we had never met, as well as some cultural and language challenges—but Leslie, the BEST Foundation’s program manager persevered and with amazing diplomacy and skillful planning, Pam was on a plane to Chile in August, 2012.
We thought those of you who have worked with Project ALERT in American classrooms and know the joy of sharing what we have learned with others would enjoy Pam Luna’s trip journal. What transpired during this journey is quite remarkable.
I knew before the trip that I’d be working in three cities in Chile; Santiago, Iquique and Valparaiso. Being a newcomer to Chile, I did some internet searching to learn more about the country. I found that Chile had a population of roughly 17 million people with nearly 3.5 million children enrolled in public and private schools. The capital city of Santiago had the largest population of nearly 6 million and greater Valparaiso (including Viña del Mar) had approximately a million school children. Iquique, a northern coastal city near the Bolivian border, was smaller yet with about 227,000 students. I went online and the country looked beautiful with dramatic seascapes and I’d be there during their winter season, so packing for colder weather was necessary. I was off on an adventure that I was certain never to forget.
There was a lot to learn; much of which occurred in the moment. For starters all the logistics of traveling to a foreign country and flying overnight is draining of energy and mental acuity. I immediately found Chile’s travel requirements to be less rigid and simplified compared to what we are subjected to in the USA. Also, electronic communication is still a challenge, even in a developed country. For example, prior to traveling, I rented a global calling phone. When I went to use that phone, I had no service because the technology of the phone was not compatible with that available in Chile. Once I adjusted to that shock (not having a working mobile phone for two weeks seemed inconceivable), I was reminded that not having to be tied to a phone offered lots of freedom. Email communication was generally good in populated areas but not always reliable and accessible. Finding hot spots with an ongoing strong signal was challenging and sending files to others was often problematic, as software versions and user expertise vary greatly. The conversion of American dollars into Chilean pesos had me sharpening my arithmetic skills. Fortunately during most of the stay, there was either someone from the US Embassy or the Corporacion by my side, so that was a huge help.
Days 1 and 2 – Travel to Santiago de Chile from USA via California and Georgia
Day 3 – Thursday, Santiago (about 15 hours after arriving in Chile)
Bright and early the morning after I arrived, I met my counterparts Dr. Christopher Williams from Life Skills and Dr. Patricia Morales with Good Behavior Game. We were whisked off in a van with our Corporacion and Embassy colleagues for a special meeting with the Minister of Education, Mr. Harald Beyer. The streets of Santiago were bustling with people and cars. It was very crowded and the skilled driver whipped in and out of streets with much finesse for about 30 minutes. I was captivated by the hustle and bustle of the city and being a dog lover, noticed there were several dogs of all kinds roaming the streets and walkways. Oddly, cars and passersbys paid them no mind. I was told by our hosts that there are many “homeless dogs” in Chile and this was normal. There were no animal control services or dog-catchers to scoop them up (or what they left behind) so this was simply an accepted part of the landscape.
We came to a halt in front of a grand and ornate neoclassical building known as La Moneda. I was told by our Embassy Specialist Mrs. Acalde, “This is where the President (Piñera) works”. We walked briskly for a few blocks to our meeting at the Ministry of Education. Carabineros (police) were omnipresent throughout this entire area guarding all access points to government buildings. Their uniforms were very formal and elaborate. Much later we were told that there were student protests underway over the rising costs of college. The protesters turned to violence, burning buses and confronting police. This made national news later that evening.
After a round of introductions with Mr. Beyer and staff, we began our presentations in a small meeting room. All our presentations were “simultaneously translated”. Thus, when I spoke in English, those not fluent wore a device with an earpiece and heard my words in Spanish delivered by an expert translator. It was quite fascinating and clearly something they were all used to doing, as this occurred quite seamlessly during each of the presentations. Our presentations were originally planned for 20 minutes each but were cut to about 12 minutes, as Mr. Beyer had a schedule change. All of the presenters, including me, quickly adjusted and covered our most salient points. This was often the case during our visit. We found we often had to adjust plans as the needs and circumstances dictated. The long embedded European influence was most apparent in these formal venues, as espresso coffee in very small cups was routinely served with a small pastry. It was quite a delight given my need for caffeine to counter my lack of sleep.
Immediately following this meeting we walked over to the Senate to meet with select senators, mayors and other “high-level” officials from several regions. En-route, we had a rather fortuitous meeting with Mr. Cristián Larroulet, the Minister-Secretary General of the Presidency who was a top official and advisor to the President, akin to the Vice-President in the USA. Mrs. Jouanne spoke to Mr. Larroulet about the work underway to support drug use prevention education in the schools. Minister Larroulet posed for pictures and conversation with us and then continued his walk with several aides.
The event at the Senate was led by Senator Orpis. Each of us gave formal presentations followed by an interactive session with the participants. Attendees had genuine concern about drug use and how to reverse the disturbing trend of use among youth. One Mayor from a northern region told a heart breaking story of very young children addicted to drugs, sitting on the streets strung out and hopeless. He made a strong and emotional plea for help. There were several reporters from TV and newspapers and I was interviewed by both. There was much interest in what prevention approaches worked with youth. Coincidentally, there was a proposed bill advocating for the legalization of marijuana for private in-home use, which added to the discussion. The increased use of marijuana is also of concern in Chile, and as in the USA, there are divided opinions about whether it should be legalized. (Ultimately, this bill did not survive the political process.)
After this event and still in the Senate building, I gave another presentation to academicians, program planners and practitioners. Whew! Our first 3 presentations all happened on the first day after arrival. Although fatigued, we three presenters returned to our hotel feeling a sense of excitement knowing we were on the cusp of some important changes that were about to occur in this country.
Day 4 – Friday, Santiago
The next day I facilitated a teacher training for approximately 35 participants. The audience was a mix of practitioners from community-based agencies, teachers and college students. I modified our typical Project ALERT training and focused on a few key activities and teaching strategies. Many attendees were interested in knowing how to manage students during small group activities and role-playing, as most felt uncertain about their abilities to do this in a classroom setting. I was told that teachers in Chile are not accustomed to receiving professional training once they become teachers. So attending this training was an unusual and welcomed experience for many of them. After the training I was asked to present certificates to each of the attendees and pose for pictures with them. This was very different from what I do after trainings in the USA!
Days 5 and 6 – Saturday and Sunday, Santiago
The weekend offered a welcomed change of pace and time for some outdoor fun. Corporacion staff Julio Figueroa and Rebeca Mateo, took us on a hike up to Cerro San Cristobal. This is the second highest point in Santiago and it provided many splendid vistas, as well as a vigorous hike to the top to see the famed statue of the Virgin Mary. On the way down we stopped at a vendor and ordered Mote con Huesillos, a tasty and refreshing drink made with dried peaches, juice and wheat berries. Julio and Rebecca both said this is a beverage they consume several times a week.
On Sunday I went to a church called Iglesia Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Our Lady of the Angels) in the El Golf neighborhood. Catholicism is the primary religion in Chile and there are many beautiful churches and cathedrals, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. I also spent time with the mother of a friend of mine who lives in Santiago. She took me to lunch and ordered me a popular cocktail called a Pisco Sour made with brandy, egg whites and lime. It was delicious but I was careful in my consumption because I had been warned about the strength of this drink.
That evening we were invited to the family home of Juan Carlos and Maria del Carmen, the sister and brother in-law of Ana-Luisa. Guests included many people from the Corporacion along with Senator Orpis. We had delicious food and lively conversation. In Chile it is customary to eat dinner much later than in the USA. Dinner was served close to 9:00 pm along with much warmth and hospitality. Senator Orpis was feeling quite hopeful that the bill he introduced would be signed by President Piñera in the coming week. He was extremely thankful to us as he noted, “your presentations were essential in getting the President to support this bill, and we extend our gratitude to you”. We were all thrilled be a part of this success.
Day 7 – Monday, Santiago and Iquique
I met with administrators and staff from the Corporacion and “SENDA“, the National Office of Drug and Alcohol Prevention in an informal setting. SENDA is the leading governmental drug policy agency. I gave a general overview of Project ALERT and then answered many more substantive and detailed questions.
Afterwards, I was driven to Colegio José Agustín Alfonso, a primary school in the Pedro Aguirre Cerda neighborhood, where I taught a class of 40 seventh graders Lesson One of the Project ALERT curriculum. The principal, teachers and staff were so excited to have us at the school. Their anticipation was high and having TV cameras and “special visitors” on campus added to the enthusiasm of all involved, especially the students. Most of the students spoke Spanish so the clever little translation devices (described previously) were used with the students. I wondered if the students would have difficulty relating to the curriculum but they quickly followed the instruction and jumped into the discussion. Their responses were much like students in the USA. When it came time for group work they eagerly participated and seemed to be well informed about the reasons why kids use and do not use alcohol and marijuana. They were very interested in the subject matter and several of the students wanted to know when the next Project ALERT lesson would be. I was thrilled to teach these very bright and concerned youth. Clearly this was a topic they wanted to learn more about. This experience was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
That afternoon we flew to Iquique, in the north of Chile, arriving in the early evening. It is a beautiful seaside city and our hotel was on the water. We dined with Mrs. Acalde to discuss the agenda and learn more about our planned work in Iquique.
Day 8 – Tuesday, Iquique
I gave a formal presentation on stage to local officials including regional directors, ministers, mayors and staff. There was much interest in prevention education and once again, the press and TV cameras were on-hand for interviews. Later that afternoon I conducted a modified teacher training for about 60 people—which turned out to be an in-depth overview of several lessons in the curriculum, as I discovered that most of the participants needed to know more about the curriculum but were not planning to actually teach it themselves to students. We flew back to Santiago that evening and then drove to Valparaiso arriving at night.
Day 9 – Wednesday, Valparaiso
We had the day off and were able to recharge and devote some time to site seeing and planning our next round of presentations. This was an official holiday in Chile celebrating the “Assumption of the Virgin.” I did not see any public celebrations, although the churches held special masses. That evening a storm came in and the waves crashed forcefully into the jagged seaside. It was a spectacular display as water was thrown several feet into the air. The sea surged high enough to lap over the hotel pool that jutted over the ocean, causing it to overrun.
Day 10 – Thursday, Valparaiso
This was the final day of formal presentations. We were presenting at the esteemed Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (The Catholic University) to a theatre style classroom full of academicians, researchers, students and administrators from SENDA. Participants wanted to know more about how to implement Project ALERT in their schools. They were also intrigued by the web-based support for Project ALERT as I was able to showcase the Project ALERT website for them.
After the presentations we spoke informally with many participants and posed for pictures with the press. Late that afternoon, we were dropped off at the Santiago airport to return back to our homes. Before leaving Chile, Senator Orpis sent word that President Piñera had signed the bill and the next step was for Congress to discuss further and vote. Senator Orpis felt there was enough support to ensure the bill would become law soon.
I left Chile much like I had arrived nearly 2 weeks prior, fatigued, excited and hopeful. It is truly an honor to be in the position of sharing with another country what we are doing in the USA. The possibility of helping other children avoid drug abuse is an awesome gift to give and receive. I also met new friends who I will continue to share thoughts and ideas with and support as they move forward in this work.
Days Later – California
I was back at home adjusting to the change and reflecting on my trip to Chile. I had just received word from Ms. Aguirre that the law requiring drug use prevention in school had passed. “We are fighting for a better future for our children,” she said once again.
Our colleagues in Chile are now in the process of determining their next steps and how best to deliver drug education in the schools. Among their many considerations are things like how many hours of instruction to require, what grades to target, what regions/sites to begin with and how to support teacher training and acquisition of materials.
I am thankful to all of you Project ALERT educators who I have learned so much from as I was able share that information and experience with our Chilean colleagues. THANKS FOR HELPING ME PAY IT FORWARD!
Somehow Chile no longer seems like a faraway place but more like a good neighbor—someone we care for and share with and wish them well.
Dr. Pamela Luna holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in education and a Doctorate in Public Health from Loma Linda University. In addition to being a Project ALERT master trainer where she has trained thousands of teachers from all over the country, she is a sought after consultant in health and education. Dr. Luna has worked in public and private schools for over 25 years. She has taught K-12 and higher education courses as well as working in administrative leadership positions.
Pam piloted Project ALERT in the classroom during RAND’s initial development phase and over the years had gained plenty of hands-on experience in delivering the lessons to students. She continues to provide critical input into the development of the curriculum as revisions are made and online updates published. Dr. Luna has also written several featured articles published in The ALERT Educator.
As a health education teacher and administrator, she has worked in the field of substance abuse prevention, developing curriculum, evaluating programs, delivering professional presentations and conducting teacher training. Other areas of outstanding expertise include obesity prevention, physical fitness and asthma management. Pam is well published and is the recipient of many awards for her work in promoting the health and wellbeing of school-age youth.
You may reach Dr. Pamela Luna on Linkedin or at DrPamLuna@gmail.com.
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