Tren Alma. This name probably doesn’t sound familiar to you, and yet, it’s one of the most established NGOs in Argentina. The story started in 1980. Some medical volunteers decided to get on a train to go to the north-west of the country. Their aim was simple: to provide children with social and medical assistance; This year, the train celebrates its thirtieth birthday.
The foundation was actually launched in the 70s, at a time when the pediatric system was almost non-existent in Argentina. In 1973, the pediatrician Martín Jorge Urtasun decided that this association would help to create, maintain and improve the pediatric services at the hospital Torcuato de Alvear, in Buenos Aires. But the objectives changed over the years. “We quickly realised that only kids from the province of Buenos Aires could come to the hospital to be treated. Those coming from further provinces were so ill that they came here to die. There was no option for them. That’s why we had the idea of using a train to visit them,” says Oscar Algranti, the president of Tren Alma.
Back then, the rail network granted them permission and that’s how, in 1980, the adventure started with three carriages and no locomotive. This train was not conventional. But it included all the material the team needed to live there for a few weeks and to take care of the children. A kitchen, a dormitory, a common room, a laboratory and a nursery were installed.
“There are still a lot of things missing in the train, but at least, we can help those children. It’s difficult to imagine that here, in Buenos Aires, we have access to the latest technologies and up in the north, people don’t even have access to a basic medical system. They live in the middle of nowhere,” explains Alicia Noemi Coronel, a nurse working for the foundation.
Alicia started volunteering for Tren Alma ten years ago. Every year she takes three weeks off at from Julio Mendez clinic where she works in the pediatric service, packs her suitcase and goes with the train. “It’s an amazing adventure,” she says. Her only concern remains the salary. “My manager gives me the authorisation to work for the foundation but I don’t get paid while I’m away, and to be honest, this is problematic. At the end of the month, I still have to pay my bills.” But when I ask her why she is doing this, her answer is immediate: “Because those kids need our help. When I started I was just recovering from an accident. I was lucky enough to receive all the help and the medical care I needed. Now, it’s my turn to give back what people gave me.”
Alicia is not the only volunteer to join the association. Approximately 90 people offer their help every year to the NGO and this number is rising – back in the 80s, there were 50 volunteers. Algranti says, “There are two types of humanitarian workers: The first ones are usually young doctors who want to save the world. They leave Buenos Aires with a good dose of enthusiasm, some ideas and a lot of hope. But after a couple of days spent in one of the poorest areas of the country, they come back with some disillusions and realise that they haven’t been able to change anything. On the other side, there is a group of well established doctors, usually in their 50s, who come to bring their experience, aware that, unfortunately, they can’t reverse the tendency.”
More than just a medical assistance, the foundation offers an important social support. The team provides a real backup for the population. One of its main missions is to reduce the level of malnutrition by providing some tips on what to eat. “In some regions, walking for six kilometres to get water is a common occurrence. As a matter of fact, most of the time the food is unhealthy and doesn’t contain vitamins and proteins that children need,” Algranti explains.
The other big issue remains the sexual health. “In the north-west provinces, families are usually large and it gets difficult for the parents to feed all their children,” adds Alicia. So the medical team also discuss contraception and family planning. “At the beginning, we used to help new born babies and children up to 14 years old. A few years ago, we decided to extend the childcare to teenagers until their 18th birthday. It’s really important to assist this range of the population as girls get pregnant very early,” explains Algranti.
Since 1980, Tren Alma has organised 170 trips and helped more than 80,000 children. Even though the conditions are sometimes precarious, the volunteers happily say that the experience is memorable. And they always come back with some anecdotes to tell, such as the women who teach them how to wash their clothes, using the sap from a cactus or one young boy who received a medical assistance and who turned out to be the grandson of a girl the train had assisted in the 80s.
Today, Tren Alma has changed little from when it started. The three carriages are still there. Also the train still doesn’t have any locomotive. “Obviously, this causes some technical problems. Without a proper locomotive, we have to find either a car or another train to lead the carriages. So, every year, in February and March, we issue a map with places where we want to go. Then, we carefully coordinate the trips with the rail company,” says Algranti.
The train leaves from Retiro Station six or seven times ever year, between April and November. Each trip usually lasts two or three weeks and as a general rule, the foundation selects only small towns of under 3,500 habitants. “Before going anywhere, we inform the population via a campaign. We tend to visit the same cities from one year to another. However, this can vary, depending on the local infrastructures. When we notice that the medical services have been extended in a town, we stop going, as we believe that the train no longer has good reason for being there. Our idea is to go where a government service hasn’t yet been established as we don’t want to compete with this service,” states Algranti.
When I asked him if the foundation would like to extend the trips to others towns, his answer was affirmative. One remaining concern is the functioning of the rail network, which, despite there being tracks covering most of the country, have been left to ruin after years of neglect and mass privatisation of the railways. But most of all, the main reason for not expending the trip is cost. Each trip costs US$7,000. Even though large charitable foundations and the private sector help the organisation cover its basic expenses, it is still facing financial problems.
Despite this, Tren Alma’s team still has some plans to expand its services. The association’s board would like to create dermatological and gynecological assistance. Also, in the future, the team wishes to develop a rotating system. Thus, the doctors could stay in these towns for a longer period. “But this requires much more money than we have,” Algranti explains.
On 9th April, Tren Alma will leave Retiro station to go back to the north of Argentina. Destination: Santiago del Estero. Like every year since 1980, the volunteers will pursue their aim: giving assistance to the population of one the poorest areas of the country. Not an easy task but probably “the best in life experience” concludes Alicia.
For donations or more information on Tren Alma: www.fundacionalma.org.ar