Hope at Seven

When I learned about the complex social structures of the ants that live beneath my feet, it blew my mind. For so many years, I had lived in their midst (by weight, the world ant population equals the world human population), yet knew nothing of their intricacies. So much going on down there I knew nothing about...

I have a similar reaction when I find myself on a big shiny airplane. It does not matter what corner of the world I am traversing; whether I am gliding over mountain villages, metropolises or desert nomads, I look down at the live map laid out like a quilt below me and wonder, “What’s going on in that little house right there?” As my recent flight from New York coasted high above the Brazilian coast, I glimpsed the wide swath of beach and envisioned sun-bathing bikini-clad Brazilian beauties. It wasn’t until I explored the coast on my own that I witnessed for myself a reality I never knew existed.

For many of us, poverty is an amorphous reality – an invisible entity which we know exists, but seldom experience. Though I often witnessed homeless people in Chicago and saw images of African refugees on television, growing up there always existed a spatial and conceptual disconnect between “world poverty” and my secure existence. But as I pulled into Peruibe, a small city on the southern coast of Brazil, I found myself face-to-face with the unfortunate reality so many earth-dwellers face.

Raissa is one of four daughters that emigrated from the arid northeast of Brazil with her parents. Just like millions of others, the Leite family headed south to the state of Sao Paulo, enchanted by dreams of high-paying jobs, education and opportunity. But what they actually encountered was an all-too-familiar and sad reality: a lack of work, family break-down, economic marginalization, hunger and hardship. After her parents grew estranged, Raissa’s mother ran off with another man, leaving the father as the sole supporter of four growing daughters. Unfortunately, without any education of his own, he has not been able to secure a stable job, relying instead on spare construction work to try to feed his family. Without money to buy land, the family has been forced to build a makeshift house on public property, which could be razed to the ground any day. The family’s shack does not fit our traditional definition of a house; a stove in the living room acts as a kitchen and the windows are holes punched through plywood. The only real pieces of furniture are a few discarded sofas and a bare cupboard. The bedroom, measuring about ten feet square, has two mattresses and a chest of drawers for the family of five.

Oh, but I am forgetting the best part. No, there is no walk-in closet, Jacuzzi bathtub or three-car garage, but there is the most darling seven year-old in the world. Raissa has honey-colored skin, golden hair and a smile that could disarm an angry army. Despite her destitute surroundings, her giggle is infectious. Suddenly motherless, Rosa – the oldest daughter – has adopted the role of guardian; she is the glue that holds the family together and keeps an eye on her siblings like a mother duck guarding her ducklings. Not only does this sixteen year-old excel in her schoolwork and actively encourage her younger sisters to do the same, she also carries out the everyday menial tasks, such as bathing and dressing her sisters and cooking their meals (when there is food to be had). She aspires to be a teacher, a musician or a doctor. But how is she supposed to go to school when her father is off working and her little sisters need attention?

Luckily, Peruibe is home to Colonia Venezia, an incredible children’s project founded by an Italian Dominican priest in 1986. Everyone at the project (staff and kids alike) dreamily describe Frei Giorgio as an angel on earth. Growing up in Italy in WWII, young Giorgio witnessed the hunger, pain and insecurity associated with the war years. After joining the church, he dedicated his life to promoting peace movements and various social causes throughout Latin America. He lived in Brazil for years before being imprisoned and later expelled by the dictatorship government in 1974. But a decade later, with the dictatorship a bitter memory, Frei Giorgio returned to Brazil, where he continued working with favela projects. In the three days I spent at this sprawling campus, compete with dining hall, music room, computer center, library and mosaic workshop, I heard laudatory stories of how this gentle soul arrived in Peruibe and used his big heart and determination to build this sanctuary where the children could further their education, learn new skills, experience a feeling of self-worth and receive nutritious meals. Having visited many similar projects around the world, I can attest that Colonia Venezia is one of the most efficiently-run and well-endowed projects of its kind I have ever seen.

One day, as I walked two of the sisters home, I asked Raissa if her father was a good guy. When I implored why she answered mais ou menos ("so-so"), she confided that sometimes her father hits her. The image of a grown man physically striking this tiny harmless child enraged me, but instead of falling victim to irrational thinking, I realized that what Raissa really needed was exactly what she was getting from Colonia Venezia: protection and a sanctuary of love and learning. The unfortunate truth is that for many of the kids at Colonia Venezia, this is the norm – hence, the importance of the project. Suddenly, my mind started to make sense of it all – so that is why two of her sisters seemed traumatized, and that is why Raissa is the youngest child in Colonia Venezia, because if her sisters are off at school or at the project, she would be left alone with her father.

The next day, as I sat in the shady grass of the project and chatted with the Leite sisters, I could sense that Rosa, the eldest, was already certain that her life held more promise than that of her parents. She was practicing for her choral recital and would be singing a portion of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, which I admitted is one of my favorite pieces of music. Rosa is already looking forward to going to college one day and speaks effusively about what Colonia Venezia has meant to her. Raissa is merely a shy seven year-old, but she politely answers my questions and laughs hysterically when anyone tickles her. She may not know it yet, but I do: Raissa has a bright future, as long as Colonia Venezia is a part of her life. In speaking with the administrators of the project, I learned that since Raissa has so recently joined the project, she still does not have a sponsor to subsidize her annual experience in the project. Looking at her irresistible smile, I decided then and there to pass along the $420 to guarantee Raissa’s involvement in Colonia Venezia.

Flying overhead in a 727, how could I have known about Raissa’s reality? And witnessing it firsthand, how could I turn away without lending a helping hand? Thank you to all of my wonderful supporters that have donated money to provide hope to this seven year-old and the others whose lives we have touched.

Copyright © 2009 Cause & Affect Foundation