Kite-surfers, body boarders, volleyball and soccer players color the coastline of Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro’s booming Miami-like neighborhood. Heavy investments are turning Barra, as the area is more popularly known, into one of the Wonderful City’s main gastronomical and entertainment centers. It is no wonder the region has one of Brazil’s highest Human Development Indexes (above 0.9) and will soon be home to the 2016 Olympic Village.
However, drive for one hour west of the nouveau riche neighborhood and – if you survive the roads populated by Rio’s notorious illegal van and bus drivers – you find yourself in rather unfamiliar territory. Luxurious condominiums and vibrant gardens suddenly give way to unpaved roads and wooden shacks. The paradisiacal 18 kilometers beach, Praia da Barra, turns into litter-filled rivers and exposed sewages.
Welcome to Retiro, Ilha de Guaratiba! A mere forty-five minutes away from Barra Shopping, the country’s second largest commercial center, you encounter a region where entertainment is limited to kite running on dirt roads. At Retiro, the government is not a reliable friend, for among the many things missing are asphalt, sanitation, policing, parks, schools, buses, hospitals, community centers…
But here is also where you find Movimento Fé e Amor or Faith and Love Movement. Founded by Jesuits in 1986, this not-for-profit works with the local community to promote education as the primary step towards social inclusion and income generation.
Within this framework, Movimento created Project Entreartes, developing educational programs for children and families in a situation of poverty and social risk. The organization has over one hundred children, aged from 6 to 16, enrolled in daily before and after-school activities including reading and writing tutorials, poetry contests, recycling ateliers, sewing, acting and capoeira classes and movie-screenings.
And this is where I spent my month of August. I worked with Movimento’s educators to teach children about the United Nations and its Millennium Development Goals. The coordinators were so excited to have me on board that they entrusted me with creating a curriculum for two full weeks. “You will have one hundred children under your responsibility,” they said, “They are going to love you!”
So we talked about the emergence of the UN and member countries’ commitment to a world of peace, the MDGs and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We created games on the importance of a healthy alimentation, recycling and respecting others. We went on ecological trash-picking walks and planted vegetable and fruit gardens.
My second day at Movimento, seven years old Maria de Fátima came to me with sparkling eyes. “Yesterday I told my dad everything about the United Nations and how people want peace in the world,” she said. Maria then told me her father, an illiterate construction worker, is learning to read and write with her and is extremely interested in hearing about all she learns in school.
For two weeks, I taught and learned from incredibly smart and courageous children. Children who were so hungry for learning that every time I had to leave would make me promise to come back tomorrow (or take them with me).
Movimento has become critical to a community deprived of entertainment and far removed from the one and only form of public transportation. It is a place where parents can trust their children to be cared for when leaving to work long hours in downtown Rio. But more than that, it tries to fill the gaps where the national and local governments are lacking.
“These families live in conditions of extreme poverty. Some didn’t even have a fridge at home before we came,” said Michelle, the group psychologist. “If we do not help them, who will” she asked me.
Besides providing monthly stipends and food staples, Movimento brings in professionals from all sectors to speak to the enrolled families on issues ranging from sexual education and dental hygiene to legal rights. I was honored to be chosen as the speaker for August to talk about gender equality and the empowerment of women.
Just as the previous weeks had been, this day was both moving and humbling. Women aged from 16 to 60, listened attentively while a young stranger spoke about domestic violence and their rights. They then opened up to me, sharing personal stories of physical and psychological abuse, voicing their disillusionment with authorities and asking for advice.
Throughout these short weeks, I worked with professionals who chose to dedicate their time to helping Retiro’s children pave the way to a more prosperous and promising future. I met brave children, adolescents and adults who smile through a daily struggle against violence and adversity.
Indeed, Brazil has significant problems, especially the educational gap and entrenched government corruption. But I have seen that it also populated with hopeful and generous individuals, who are inspiring our future generation by taking the social transformation process into their own hands.
A version of this article was written for and published by Communique on September 30th, 2010.