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Shakin' It Up in South America: Teaching Proyecto ALERTA in Chile

by Pamela J. Luna, DrPH, MEd

The Invitation...


In August 2012, I arrived in Chile at the invitation of the Chilean Government and the US Embassy to present a briefing on evidence-based programs for drug, marijuana and tobacco use prevention education that had been successfully implemented in the US. For many in attendance, this was their first introduction to Project ALERT/“Proyecto ALERTA.” The invitation coincided with the introduction of a bill co-authored by Chilean Senator Jaime Orpis mandating such instruction in their schools. Just before my trip ended, Senator Orpis shared the news that then-President Piñera had signed the bill, and that hope for the eventual passage of the law was growing. Precipitating the appeal for new legislation had been the emergence of the drug, “Pasta Basta,” a cheap and extremely addictive byproduct in the processing of cocaine that was being used disproportionately by those in poorer communities, and wreaking havoc among adolescents in Chile and throughout Latin America. The need for prevention education had fast become a social imperative. While the law is still under consideration, several regions have decided to move forward with prevention education. (See related ALERT Educator article.)

Project ALERT is the Program of Choice

In 2013, it was announced that the US Embassy in Chile, along with key government officials and community leaders, had selected Project ALERT to be implemented in their schools. The charge was clear and we were ready to do something unprecedented in this country - to give teachers the skills and materials necessary to deliver a course to students that would empower them to resist the pressures to use drugs. Having trained over 7,000 teachers throughout the US, I felt confident that similar success could be replicated in Chile.

The plan was to launch a national campaign by training educators in four regions. As in the 2012 trip, the US Embassy had teamed up with Chile’s Corporación La Esperanza, a community-based substance use prevention, education, and assistance organization, and requested that I form a team to conduct the trainings. I selected two outstanding co-trainers who had once lived in Chile, Kristin Zakoor from Arizona and Dr. Patricia Morales from Texas. Over a three-week period, we worked in four regions - from the far north city of Arica, about 45 minutes from the Peruvian border, then on to the coastal city of Iquique, then making our way south to the capital city of Santiago, and finally ending up in the city of Rancagua.

The Adventure Begins, Again...

The trip began with an orientation for the trainers and meetings with our hosts. This included a dinner at the famous Adobes de Argomedi restaurant in Santiago to enjoy the local cuisine and see a traditional dance performance. As I was merrily snapping photos I heard the crowd chanting “cueca, cueca…” Dr. Morales quickly turned to me and said in a serious tone, “if you are asked to dance you must say yes or you will insult the performers.” Apparently, the ‘just say no’ response was not an option! I quickly slouched in my seat looking downward to maintain a low profile; but alas, the performers must have spotted the reluctant out-of-towner as I was invited to perform the national dance known as the Cueca on stage in front of the audience!  EEK.  As I walked onto the dance floor, maintaining my best “I can do this” self-talk, I whispered to my professional dance partner: “I am from California and don’t know what I am doing.” In broken English, he stated, “Just follow me” and handed me a handkerchief with a smile. I was wondering what the heck to do with it…maybe cry! I soon learned the Cueca with a very able and patient partner and found that the handkerchief was a critical part of this courting dance, as it is meant to be twirled around in a sort of come-hither, frenzied fashion. I survived and apparently was entertaining enough as I was chosen again for a second performance. It was a fun evening and I learned something new!

On the Move

Our first two of five trainings were in “El Norte.” Whenever locals heard we were going there, they made mention of the area’s seismic activity. Having just left California and missed the La Habra quakes by a few days, I was feeling lucky - sort of. I proceeded with cautious optimism as my prior experience in the 6.9 San Francisco earthquake in 1989 (oddly enough, while conducting Project ALERT trainings at the San Francisco Archdiocese) taught me a few things about preparedness. During this trip, I kept my passport, phone, some Chilean pesos, and a flashlight on me at all times. Further, I made certain I knew the locations of all stairwells and exits, as well as evacuation routes to higher grounds!

Our trainings in Arica and Iquique went as planned and were well-attended. There were some small tremors and people seemed to be aware yet unconcerned. However, the hotel staff and our Embassy guides in Iquique were particularly cautious and had mapped out our emergency evacuation procedures. They had learned much from the 8.8 earthquake in 2010 and the resulting tsunami that occurred along the south central coast of Chile, and were taking these tremors very seriously. I slept in my street clothes that night as my 5th floor room facing the ocean made me anxious.

The training session in Iquique was very productive and we exceeded our initial registration by 10 participants. The room was packed and no one seemed to worry about the seismic activity. The notable exception was our US Embassy hosts who told us they had arranged for us to leave the area the following day just in case the big one was coming. The trainers were relieved as it was difficult for us to enjoy the surroundings with the distraction of all the tremors. Iquique was indeed fabulous, but why tempt Mother Nature?

Shake It Up

Four days later and back resting in Santiago, I received a frantic call from my daughter in Oregon. She had just found out via social media that a “devastating 8.2 earthquake had struck Chile.” She knew before I did, and I was in the country! I assured her I was safe, and thankfully, I was. I turned on the television and was fixated on CNN-Chile’s coverage of the earthquake and the tsunami warnings. I saw places I had visited just days before that were now being evacuated. People in Arica and Iquique were out on the streets and heading for the hills. Yet, it was all so orderly and there was no civil unrest - quite different from what I had experienced in San Francisco in 1989, as mayhem and lack of communication had been the norm. In Santiago, it was business as usual. As I went to breakfast, no one was watching the news except me. I asked a local why that was and he said, “Earthquakes are common and we just roll with it; we know what to do.” So I relaxed a little and went about my day.

Our final training took place the following day and, once again, people behaved as if they had no worries or concerns. In California it had been my experience that after an earthquake, we talked about it for days, even for moderate earthquakes. Not so in Chile. Two nights before returning for home, a 5.2 earthquake registered in Santiago and my hotel shook forcefully and the lights in the hotel and on the street went out. I was ready to run to the stairwell with my flashlight, passport, and pesos, and found no one else coming out of their rooms. No announcements either. After about 5 minutes or so, the lights came back on and I went downstairs to the lobby, and everything was back to normal. Or had I entered the “Twilight Zone”?

Mission Accomplished

After three weeks in Chile, it was time to go home. We had five outstanding workshops, trained 137 people in Project ALERT, and I had learned the Cueca. The US Embassy and Corporación La Esperanza were pleased and already talking about expanding the implementation. Additionally, I collected survey data from attendees regarding their evaluations of the trainings, as well as what barriers they saw to successful implementation of Project ALERT in their schools. I was also able to interview five key personnel instrumental in bringing Project ALERT to Chile to help inform us in understanding and addressing the facilitators and barriers to this large-scale implementation. This year, five school sites were provided technical support and assistance by Corporación La Esperanza as they implemented Project ALERT. These schools served as a mini-pilot as plans to expand to other schools are in progress.

It is an honor to do this work and to share the successes of the many teachers in the US who are furthering substance use prevention education every day. It is rewarding to know that the youth in Chile are being given the skills they need to resist the pressures to use drugs and that we in the US have been able to help make that happen.

Our work to keep youth safe and drug-free continues. Thanks for being a part of our Project ALERT team.


Director's note: Dr. Pamela Luna, a senior Project ALERT trainer, has been affiliated with the program for over 25 years and was one of the teachers that helped RAND develop and evaluate the curriculum during initial field testing. A manuscript detailing the findings from Dr. Luna’s survey and interviews is in review for professional publication. Once published, we will share findings from the article with the Project ALERT community.


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