Volunteers drive relief efforts in Italy

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part report from Italy that looks at the aftermath of the earthquake. Tuesday’s will look at University of Minnesota students in the area.

PERUGIA, Italy âÄî In the tent camps of LâÄôAquila , children jump over the ropes holding up the government-issued tents that have become their homes. They chase a man wearing a polka dot tie, plaid pants and a red nose. The man turns, holding out a blank book, and as the children wave a wand in front of the pages, images magically appear. The man’s name is Maximiliano; he is a member of the Andrea Tudisco clown therapy organization. He is also one of the 8,000 volunteers who have arrived in L’Aquila following the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck the city last Monday morning, killing 289 people and leaving 50,000 homeless. The number of homeless has fallen to 28,000 since Monday, as many people have moved in with family or friends. Of those that remain homeless, 17,000 are staying in the 31 tent camps , or tendopoli, that litter the region of Abruzzo. Due to the structural instability of buildings in the area, and the threat of the continuing aftershocks, hotels are not being used. Those who aren’t staying in the tendopoli sleep in their cars or the stationary trains parked outside of the train station, which have been converted into bedrooms, each compartment containing two sets of three-level bunk beds. âÄúThis is our reality,âÄù said Antonella Cococclioni, who is living in an eight-person tent with her husband, Aldo Fulvio di Luzio, and her son Raffaele. âÄúWe are just thanking God that weâÄôre alive.âÄù The family was living in Quartiere Torrione before the earthquake. This quarter of L’Aquila was barricaded from the public after the quake and can only be entered with authorized transport. Police vans bring residents to and from their houses, collecting necessary items. Raffaele was able to bring his two pet birds from home to the tendopoli, where he keeps them in a cage outside of the tent. While Raffaele plays outside, his parents read the regional newspaper Il Centro. They hide the newspaper from their son, who gets upset by the scenes of destruction that are depicted on nearly every page. Dr. Mario Tallarico, a child psychologist and coordinator of the Andrea Tudisco clown therapy organization, which Maximiliano is a member of, said it is impossible to calculate what the psychological impact of the earthquake will be on children like Raffaele. Tallarico previously worked with clown therapy in hospitals, organizing visits to children and the elderly. When he heard about the earthquake he immediately mobilized the organization and brought 20 clowns to L’Aquila. He said he hopes that having the clowns in L’Aquila will turn some of the negative aspects of the situation into positives, and that when parents see their children happy and smiling it will help them as well. Noticeable developments are already evident in the children’s behavior. âÄúWhen we arrived in the tendopoli, on that first day the children were quiet; they did not want to talk,âÄù Tallarico said. âÄúNow they smile and laugh and talk to us.âÄù The current group of clowns volunteering in the tendopoli has come from Rome, and the majority of them are doctors who have taken time off work to volunteer. On Thursday, the first group of clowns will return home, and another group will take their place. Tallarico said the clown operation will continue as long as there are people in the camps, which he estimates to be another seven months. Angelo Cutaia is the chief volunteer coordinator of the largest tendopoli in L’Aquila, which is located on a field inside of a running track. Cutaia said the amount of time people will remain in the tendopoli is inestimable at this time. Volunteers from across Italy and Europe have assembled in L’Aquila and surrounding cities, despite the national holiday on Easter Sunday. The volunteers wear neon yellow vests (or a clown costume), and take on many roles: they hand out meals, clean the camps, put up additional housing and babysit children. âÄúThis is the biggest relief operation on record in Italy,âÄù said Cutaia, who normally volunteers for the Italian Civil Protection Department during the day. At night he works at Marcus Club, a pub that he owns with his son. âÄúI closed the pub because when I see the number of deaths, when I see my friends who are hurt or lost their house, I am unable to sit in front of the TV and say âÄòuhhh…âÄôâÄù Cutaia said. There is a great sense of camaraderie in Italy, Cutaia added. âÄúIt doesn’t matter where you come from, north or south, people are coming together in this time of crisis.âÄù âÄî Jessie Van Berkel is a sophomore in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is currently studying abroad in Perugia, Italy. Managing Editor Mike Rose welcomes comments at [email protected]