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July 12, 2023

AVSI Brasil helps disaster-stricken communities rebuild and grow


   July 25, 2023 // Written by Colin Murphy

When the rain comes, so does the fear. For hundreds of children living near the city of Petropolis, in southeastern Brazil, such a normal, natural phenomenon recalls a traumatic experience. 


In February of 2022, a historic rainstorm hit Petropolis. The flooding and mudslides destroyed hundreds of homes and left thousands of people without shelter. Homes poorly built on unstable hillsides were swept away by falling water and earth. One hundred seventy-six people died. Families spent many nights on the streets or in makeshift shelters, trying to process the reality that their whole world, already so fragile, was now completely gone.


For a community marked by intersecting social problems and economic vulnerabilities, rebuilding from the disaster was daunting, but AVSI Brasil was there to help them do it. With help from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, a humanitarian funder based in the US, AVSI mounted a community rebuilding and strengthening project.  


AVSI understands that the best way to reach families, and whole communities, is by accompanying the children. So, AVSI staff approached community centers in two neighborhoods of Petropolis – Alto da Serra and Caixambu, about offering children educational and psychosocial support programming. AVSI Brasil Project Manager, Fernanda Augusta, says the first thing she and her team noticed was how traumatized the children were from the experience. “When it rains a lot, the children panic and despair, which are characteristics that we see a lot in adults, while children sometimes are oblivious. But when that first big storm came, these children were trapped inside a school, and some of them were separated from their families for a long time.”



Added to this visceral experience of shared trauma are the smaller daily problems that come with living in such vulnerable communities: Poverty, addiction, broken homes, and petty crime. “Just five years ago, many of the houses in this area did not have bathrooms. That still shocks us.” Added Fernanda. “We have a lot of cases of domestic violence within the family, many cases of abuse. Many cases of alcoholism and drugs as well.”

AVSI staff observed a lot of affective issues among the children in these communities. They were emotionally and socially closed off. The joy and lightness of being a normal kid were not there. So AVSI designed programming to help them be kids again.

The program starts with psychosocial attention, where a psychologist meets with children one-on-one and in groups to talk about their experiences of trauma, help them learn positive coping mechanisms, and work on improving their self-esteem. Then, there is an educational reinforcement component. The children missed a lot of vital school time in the aftermath of the natural disaster, and when they could go to school, the quality of their learning was not always good. Through this project the children have a space to review the concepts they learn in school and fill in any knowledge gaps they might have. 

Educational reinforcement activities within the project include writing and performing short songs and plays, journaling, and watching a movie
together about a certain theme and then discussing it.

Last, but certainly not least, Fernanda says, AVSI’s programming emphasizes the importance of play. “Even though some of our programming deals with heavy themes, we do not take away from them that pleasure of playing. Regardless of what’s going on in their lives, they need to play, to have fun.”


She has seen firsthand how the children have grown thanks to the attention they have received. “The children are very affectionate. They are always hugging and greeting each other and talking with the teachers. They are no longer closed off.  They have managed to understand a lot about their traumatic experiences and how to deal with that trauma going forward.”



Authenticity and representation have been keys to success in a community that traditionally has been left at the margins of society. “The first day that I visited the students in the classroom, I had my hair in a ‘fro,” said Fernanda, who is Afro-Brazilian. “Though they had never met me, the children ran up and hugged me and said ‘Oh teacher, wow! How beautiful!’ I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ But then I realized that these children had never felt represented by teachers and authority figures. So, I knew from that moment that I had a huge responsibility to honor that.”

This authentic connection started in the classroom with children and has expanded to their families and the entire community.  In many cases, parents and guardians cannot attend school events because they have to work or suffer from addiction.  So, AVSI Brasil social workers started visiting the families in their homes and following up with each family attending. They have seen tremendous strides in parent-child relationships and parents’ engagement in their children’s education.


Another thing that sets AVSI’s approach apart is the focus on establishing networks. “Families here tend to be lonely and isolated. Even though they live very close to each other, they do not have solidarity,” says Paola Gaggini, AVSI Brasil’s program coordinator in Rio de Janeiro. “That is why we create groups and do follow-up not individually but in groups. This creates sustainability because families begin to sympathize with one another and form bonds. If I have difficulty taking my son, but my neighbor lives nearby and takes her daughter, why can’t she help me?”


Establishing a pathway to sustainability is often forgotten in the hurry to respond immediately to natural disasters. A generation of children lived through this disaster, and while it is vital that they receive the humanitarian assistance they need in the short term, it is perhaps even more vital that these children, and the next generation, are not destined to relive the same traumas in the long-term.


Finally, Gaggini says that visibility is also a huge challenge that goes hand in hand with disaster preparedness. “Many families that we found were not on the public lists. In the eyes of the government, they didn’t exist. So later, we accompanied people to public assistance centers to register them. Then these people began to exist.” If ever there is another natural disaster in the area, the local government will more quickly be able to locate and attend to these families.


Today, children in Petropolis are no longer so afraid when it rains. It is not that the threat of a flood or mudslide has completely disappeared, but because the children have learned how to process their fear and anxiety and because they have a community of people supporting them. A small act of solidarity and connection can be transformative, and AVSI will continue to walk with this community – not just so they can face future disasters, but so they can grow and thrive.