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My hometown, Curepto, was destroyed by the 2010 Chile earthquake that hit the country on February 27. Soon after the tragedy, Cureptans—both those who still lived in Curepto and those who had left—joined forces to reconstruct the village. This propelled us, a trio of old friends now living in Santiago, to form an association called the Group of Friends for the Rebuilding of Curepto. It grew from fond memories of a carefree adolescence—a joint effort to give something back to the village that had made our young lives so joyful.
Initially, we organized bingo games, mostly at a retirement home. One day it occurred to me: “Why not help young people develop leadership skills?” I wondered how I could share the knowledge and training I had acquired in my professional life with youth. I was inspired by the words of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda:
“The great Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881–1936), said that we must become the soil that enables our young people, who are filled with potential, to bloom beautifully . . . Our precious young people, emissaries from the future, are my life. Seeing their growth, seeing them triumph in their own unique way . . . is my greatest joy.”
I envisioned creating a course that would help young people develop into responsible adults with strong leadership qualities and a commitment to peace, diversity and respect for others—people committed to bettering the world, beginning with their own self development, youth who create value for their local communities and their countries and are citizens of the world. These are ideals that President Ikeda has consistently stressed.
I enthusiastically shared the idea with my friends, who told me that I would be wasting my time since the kids in Curepto would not be receptive and were more interested in partying! I refused to accept this bleak portrait of the youth. My Buddhist practice has taught me that all of us have great potential and that young people in particular need to be nurtured, as they are the key to our future.
Regardless of my friends’ doubts, I was determined to start the course and set up a meeting in Curepto for anyone interested. I left Santiago at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning and finally, four hours later, sat down at the restaurant where we were set to meet. Nobody showed up. This gave me the idea to go to the local radio station to see if I could promote the meeting that way. I did just that and was able to bring together 10 students the following weekend. Our journey had begun!
My vision for the course was that it would not be a theoretical course on leadership—I wanted to see the students lead. We met once a month on a Saturday for several hours, over a period of 10 months. It was incredible to see young people showing up at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning ready to learn. I remember a young woman who would travel 20 minutes from her home to the bus stop and 20 more minutes by bus to arrive at class. The students once said to me: “Professor, you travel from Santiago and always arrive 15 minutes early—how could we not come to class?” It was then that I realized how crucial a role adults play in young people’s lives and how we can be a positive influence on them.
The students and I did various activities during the course, including taking field trips and hosting guest speakers. We also mounted the exhibition “Seeds of Hope: Visions of sustainability, steps toward change,” jointly created by the SGI and the Earth Charter International, at the University of Concepción.
The second course (2012) ended with two graduation ceremonies—that of the Saturday morning class and of the Saturday afternoon class.
In the third year (2013), we decided that the students should focus on concrete tasks aimed at helping their community and putting their knowledge to work. This idea gave rise to the Town Squares in Action initiative.
Putting in enormous effort, the students organized a Saturday town square fair that included stands offering insight into the practicalities of various professions. There were representatives from the forestry sector who distributed saplings of native trees, artists who offered a pottery class and puppeteers who put on a nature-themed show for the children.
In 2014, we developed an initiative based on the idea of sustainable civic responsibility, which showed how ordinary citizens can organize themselves in order to help their communities.
In 2015, when another severe earthquake struck Chile, members of the Curepto community contacted us for help, as the town had yet to receive any aid from the government. The request surprised us, but the students quickly rose to the occasion. They joined forces to collect contributions, and then two of them flew to the disaster zone to distribute the contributions. Seeing their efforts, the Group of Friends for the Rebuilding of Curepto realized that we were here to stay, that our work had not been in vain and that encouraging a group of local young people to take action had been the right decision. As President Ikeda has repeatedly said in his writings, when young people find their mission, their power becomes boundless.
Nichiren writes, “If one lights a fire for others, one will brighten one’s own way.” I feel indebted to my young friends for giving me the opportunity to help materialize what Buddhism has taught me and for helping me to grow. Out of a great tragedy has been born great hope for the future.
Adapted from the September 2015 issue of Fortuna, SGI-Chile; photos courtesy of SGI-Chile.