The Best of All Gifts

The mailbox at the complex where I live was broken a week ago so I received all my mail in bulk today…among the envelopes there was a very special one: it was sent to me from the last ESL school in Surrey where I presented the Emergency Preparedness workshop…

Emergency Fire Buckets stock photo: image courtesy of artur84/
Emergency Fire Buckets stock photo: image courtesy of artur84/

This was an unusually low level English class (I usually deliver the workshop to levels 5 and up. For those not in the ESL environment, 5 means a person can read, write and communicate in simple but complete English). This class was level 3 and 4 together, a real challenge for me: how to teach about disasters and preparedness to ~60 people from around the world whose English is so basic? I found out about this just five minutes before my presentation: they were adults from Iran, India, Guatemala, China, Korea, Pakistan, Kenya, Ukrania and son on…

Then I reminded myself that there are three things that work much better than language:

  • Being truly there
  • Acting (the more a clown, the better)
  • Caring

The sample letters I reproduce here send me a best of gifts I could have asked for: these people (many of them refugees, some who were sponsored or applied as skilled workers but couldn’t find work because of their English), these people actually received the message and they went home and prepared extra food, water and alternative energy sources…





I recall how we laughed together when I shared them what a “hazard” was or when I told them that one of the most challenging things after a disaster is finding ways to dispose of humanure safely…

I don’t present my Disaster Management workshops the same for different public: when presenting this at Permaculture gatherings, I rather emphasize the design and need to minimize damage through succession, guilding and utilizing diversity and multiple function/multiple elements principles. I talk about the need to create disaster profiles and thinking in creative ways to deal with each one of them.

When I present this to other groups, such as neighbours or community groups I emphasize the need for community HRVA (Hazard, Risk and Vulnerability Assessment) as well as asset/skills assessment and how organized communities can respond better than individuals or isolated families.

But when I present this and my other workshop (First Aid for communities) to ESL and similar groups, I am more matter-of-fact and focus on the basics: minimizing risks, plan, stock-up, what-to-do-while-is-happening, evacuations and reunion. I try to use humour and simple words, I act a lot so they can understand and show short videos, materials and PPT combined with short group activities and F.A.Q.s.


In a discussion related to NTHE these days somebody said something about the futility of preparing, others shared about stock piling and many (mostly from the US) talked about weapons…

My view after many years volunteering as a team leader and facilitator, training and learning; after years of experience helping people back in South America to prevent accidents, wildfires and floods; after going myself through two coup d’états, social unrest, food and basic supplies scarcity, storms, small fires and floods, building survival shelters in the woods, learning scout knots and so on is that some disasters (and collapses) are slow-cooking (like boiling a frog) and some are sudden…for some you’ll have to stay put at home and external help may or may never arrive; for others you’ll need to run and hide; for others you may not even survive no matter what.

What helps in any case is not being frenzy and anxious about “what if’s” that nobody can truly predict. Weapons don’t work except if you want to end up with a bloody mess and more pain; stockpiling and collecting every single survival “tool” will not help either: in a long emergency or one where all is gone, this will not help. So what truly helps? How to prepare?

Here are my gifts to you:

  • Skills over “stuff”
  • Community over isolation
  • Caring, collaboration and compassion over weapons and bunkers
  • Prepare your body: being flexible, healthy and able to respond when you may need to run, climb, crawl, etc
  • Prepare your senses: you need to be able to eat/drink anything, wear anything, smell/hear/sense anything and sleep anywhere…
  • Prepare your mind: people who have proactively thought about “what to do if” in a matter-of-fact way usually respond better than those who have rejected the idea or simply not thought about it
  • Train your mind: by exposing yourself to difficult situations through volunteering you develop compassion and skills to remain calm
  • Prepare your soul: understand that disasters are a human concept, that you may not survive and that is OK as we are part of a cycle and if you do (survive), your work is to support others around you
  • Embrace life: live every day to its fullest as it works for you and your loved ones…life is for living!

I may never see again the wonderful people who wrote the above letters. But today, they have given to me the best gift I could have asked for!

I leave you with an inspiring documentary that will be released soon:

More information about the movie and its release:

For practical information about Disaster Preparedness:


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