Friday, November 21, 2008

A Life Altering Experience

By Scott Phillips, Regional Development Officer (Great Lakes Region) for Christian Children's Fund

After another night in Diamantina we made our way back to Belo.

Our last night in Diamantina we ate local fare in a café on the main square. During the holiday season they hold an amazing concert here. Musicians are located in the windows of all the buildings surrounding the square on the second floor while maestros direct the music from down below. Tables are set outside and thousands come to listen to the music. It is quite an event I am told.

Perhaps someday I will return and hear this for myself; I certainly would love to!

As we made our way back to Belo on the bus, we passed hundreds of stalls along the road that sold homemade hot sauces by the thousands. Each one was different and I am sure great! I was tempted to pull the cord and ask the driver to pull over, but I couldn’t.

I hope you have all enjoyed reading of my time in the Jequitinhonha Valley. It was truly life altering for me, as it is every time I see new CCF programs in the field. However, this area was much more than I had ever dreamed it would be; much more demanding, much more remote, much more challenging in so many different ways.

I encourage everyone reading along to visit this area of Brazil if you ever have the chance. I am always available to carry your luggage!

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hard Work Pays Off in Maria Nunez

By Scott Phillips, Regional Development Officer (Great Lakes Region) for Christian Children's Fund

Bom tardes!

After a quick stop at the local supermarket for some apples, and a few items of food for the road, we were back out of Diamantina and heading to the community of Maria Nunez.

Originally a prosperous mining town, the company working here abruptly closed the mines one day and moved out. This left the entire community with no jobs and no real future. The local population went into a depression and developed a problem with alcoholism. While this is usually a disease that tends to effect men more often than women, even the women in this town were hard core drinkers and not much more than that.

Eight years ago, a few of the women got together and decided that they had to do something to change the state of their community. A small group of them decided that they would try to grow some fruit and begin a business. They put together what amounted to little more than a dream and approached CCF to help with selling there fruit and a few vegetables.

After they were up and running they received a grant from Petrobas, the Brazilian gas company, and were able to build a building and expand their land. As we arrived at Maria Nunez, we were met by a group of over a dozen women: the core of the project! These women represented the 37 families that work with this special program. One member of the group passed away this last year, and the woman are amazed that her husband takes her place and works right along side them.

The building has a delivery area, a processing area, a juicing machine and a storage area. They have studied the market and local growing environment and have decided on growing passion fruit, pineapple and a local fruit that is very high in vitamin content.

They used to just have one crop a year, but now they have expanded to two crops a year. However, this year they have had to deal with a recent hailstorm ruining their crops and with discovering a type of blight that infects pineapple plants. While the group is understandably frustrated, they are committed to continuing on no matter what it takes.

As we talk, they each share their painful stories of alcoholism, depression, hope and hard work. As they talk of hope, one woman tells me “compared to drinking, a little hail and disease is not so bad. Thank God for Procaj and CCF.”

Eight years and they are still working hard against very challenging odds. Their biggest challenges right now are the loss of the crop and their husbands’ loss of work. Last year their business resulted in a net to each woman of 106 Reals for the year. Can you imagine all this hard work for the equivalent of only $42.40 USD for the year? But they continue as it is their only future as they see it and they are truly committed to a better future for themselves and their children.

Before we leave to look at the grounds, the women unveil a carrot cake and pineapple juice for us. The juice is literally just squeezed and the carrot cake is the most wonderful tasting cake I believe I have ever tasted. Certainly I have never eaten anything with so much love baked into it by so many with so much at stake in their daily work.

We spend an hour or so looking over the plants in the fields where the women break into song; beautiful voices that harmonize in a most amazing manner. The songs are of love, hope and the future. They are strong voices that quite literally cause me to begin crying.

No one wants to leave. The darkness is beginning to fall, but that does nothing to lessen the voices raised up in hope and song.

Finally our driver makes us move to the truck since he is concerned about driving after dark. We all share hugs and tears and smiles and they all want to know what I think.

All I can say is that I am humbled in their presence, that I now know truly what hard work can bring to a life and that I will carry each of them and their voices in my heart for the rest of my life.

Once in the truck, there is nothing but silence for miles and miles as we make our way back to Diamantina.

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Meu Cerrado and a Slight Detour

By Scott Phillips, Regional Development Officer (Great Lakes Region) for Christian Children's Fund

Your Place is Meu Cerrado

We started the day at our local organization in Diamantina called Procaj, a fantastic program that works in 21 local communities (1,150 enrolled children with 890 sponsored) outside of this historic mining town.

In the central space of the office, there are racks of items made by the children and parents in these communities, all traditional, and all being sold to help the families earn an income. They also have “Little House of Culture” projects, medical help, schooling, pregnancy education and older youth development activities.

I know when I went to EFA the other day I said the ride was tough to describe; well today it’s absolutely impossible to even try! We passed more people on horseback than in cars and those were few as well.

The project, Meu Cerrado (My Place), is145 km from Diamantina. We have been working in this community since 2002 and UNESCO has been our partner at their local school for two years. This project helps children from two communities, Covao and Algodoeiro. We provide services to 35 families including the community’s 300 children.

Each family lives independently and is quite isolated from each other in the hills.If they are lucky, families live where they find a natural spring. Others live in homes of adobe-style walls, thatched roofs and sometimes in caves between the rocks.

They have no electricity, except a few homes that have a small solar unit, which I was told are not good for the area. The units were provided free, but they do not work very well in the cloudy atmosphere and are metered so the family must pay for the electricity they use. Most are “silent”or unused as the locals say.

The only communication the community has is via a local radio, where they post announcements for one another.

As we approached Meu Cerrado, we saw a few children along the way. I thought these were children going or coming from school, as I was told that our project here provides schooling for students in grades first through fourth. Most students, if they go, must get up at 2 or 3 a.m. to walk for an hour and a half or two hours just to get to the bus.

They don't then return home until 5 p.m. making for a terribly long day. Also they often do not sleep well at night, worrying about getting up for their walk. One father told us that his daughters have to cross the river, jumping from rock to rock to get to school, or if the river is too high they cannot go at all. He worries all the time for their safety.

Children piled into the truck with us as we passed them. The laughter and talking was wonderful therapy after the dangerous drive.

A Schoolyard Full

We turned one last corner and there was the school building, a cinder-block structure, painted white and decorated with small hand prints in red and blue all over. I was shocked to see the courtyard filled with parents and children, children and more children!

We spent a long time in the yard of the school learning about the people and the area. They have no Early Childhood Development (ECD) center or formal ECD programming, but they visit every child between birth and 5-years of age at least once a month for weighing, height, nutrition and health, check-ups. After 5 years, the visits are bimonthly.

The families grow vegetables and fruits in community gardens such as cassava, corn, beans, citrus, squash, fruit and a bit of coffee. The municipal government provides some food for the school, but often it runs out. The drawback is that they must stop planting during the rainy season since it rains so hard that nothing can grow.

A teacher comes out from Diamantina for 15 days, teaches grades first through fourth in one room and lives in a room of the school. The room for the teacher truly makes one question why anyone would chose to live there. They have very few supplies, no desks, only chairs and floor mats, where the children do a lot of their work.

The volunteer cook, a mother, cooks a snack for the children each day. As she explained, “when the municipal government gives us a tank of gas (propane) the snack is warm, when no gas then the snack is cold for the children.”

The children all sang me a song in their classroom. Smiles are everywhere and the children are so intensely thankful that we are in this community and providing crucial services, even if it is at such a minimal level.

The families rely on the men getting day labor jobs in Diamantina for any livelihood that they can. They earn, at best, 15 Reals a day for work, if they can get it, which I am told is rare (the equivalent of about $6.00 a day).

CCF offers older youth programming here too. We met two boys and a girl in this program between the ages of 16 and 18. They are part of a student leadership group of 42 students from 9 different communities. They are dealing with issues about income generation, work skills, business skills and citizenship. They all love this effort and said before this CCF program they really had nothing to do.

A Slight Detour

After a traditional coffee in the school kitchen we had to leave, but not before many photos, hugs and many more questions. We added as many children into the truck as we could, including a baby of less than a month old.

We headed back to Diamantina and on our way dropped children off at their homes, with every parent asking us in to visit.

Finally it was just us in the truck and we continued on our way until we happened upon a Volts wagon Beetle trying to get up a hill with no success. A family of seven was in the car trying to get to Diamantina with a sick 1-year old. They managed to move the VW aside and while the father and older sons stayed behind to fix the car, we took the rest of the family to town with us.

As I listened to the wonderful voices around me speaking Portuguese, I got to thinking how much of everything we do revolves around dignity, hope and learning to give children a better future.

As we dropped the family off, I learned we will now head to the Maria Nunez community to see a family income project. I'll have more this afternoon!

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

E - I - E - I - Oi! from Diamantina

By Scott Phillips, Regional Development Officer (Great Lakes Region) for Christian Children's Fund

Not “oye” as in vey, but Oi!

Here in Brazil the common greeting is Oi! However, just in the state of Minas Gerais they change it slightly to Uoi! One of the fastest growing cell phone companies in all of Brazil has taken the name Oi, meaning simple, easy, no trouble.

We left Virgem da Lapa this morning at 6 a.m. to catch a bus to Diamantina about 100 kilometers away from Virgem da Lapa. This will be our home site for the next two days. The road to Virgem da Lapa is “paved” with red clay, water and potholes. Just imagine sitting in a seat and getting kidney-punched for four hours.

For more than two hours we drove through nothing but eucalyptus groves; mile after mile, as far as the eye could see. Then all of a sudden, the scenery changed to sugar cane fields. And, just as quickly, the sugar cane ended and we saw nothing but miles of beef cattle ranch land.

When we got off the bus we took local transport into town and dropped into a marvelous little restaurant for lunch, where Ana introduced me to Brazilian “sun meat.” Sun meat is a traditional cut of beef steak, very nice and lean, but with a traditional strip of fat along one side for flavor. It is seasoned with a rub and set in the sun to cure.

Originally this was used to preserve the meat; now it is a local favorite and a significant traditional meal, served on a steaming flat rock with lightly fried cassava. Naturally after the meal we had the traditional shot of Brazilian coffee.

In almost every restaurant we have been in you find the coffee urn next to the cash register and alongside the urn is a stack of demitasse cups. As you pay your bill, you take a shot of the coffee. If you are Brazilian you add perhaps a touch of cream and a huge amount of sugar.

We then scouted town for a Pousada, or inn, for us. We found a terrific small historic place, Pousada Capistrana, right in the heart of the colonial section of town just steps off the main square bordered by the main Catholic church in town.

The Pousada had three floors; the main two above ground were the family’s rooms and the basement rooms were where the slaves were housed. This is typical of homes in this area that are still intact from the 1700s and 1800s. Diamantina reminds me of Oro Puerto. While both are UNESCO World Heritage Cities, Diamantina seems much more of a common town that preserves it history, unlike Oro Puerto, which is geared more toward tourism.

We headed off to go shopping and as we were browsing it began to rain again, so we sat and began talking with the staff. A nice man who had been helping us, Gilson, heard Ana say Fundo Cristao and he started to tell us his story.

Gilson was a sponsored child in a tiny village about 150 kilometers away from Aracuai. His mother abandoned him and he relied on gifts from his Padrinha (sponsor) and the services of CCF. He said sponsorship was the most important thing in his life and still recalls the milk he tasted at the project was “the sweetest thing I tasted in all my life.”

Now, Gilson has a job as a salesman at what is considered the best gem and mineral store in all of Diamantina. He helps the local project by making rosaries out of seeds and local stones for them to sell.

Over and over, Gilson told us that sponsorship was the only thing that “saved his life.” We finished our day early and will be joining our colleagues at the local office to see area projects for the day tomorrow.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hands-On Learning for Life at the Family Agricultural School

By Scott Phillips, Regional Development Officer (Great Lakes Region) for Christian Children's Fund

I know I said yesterday might have been the quintessential day for me to understand why I love to work for CCF, but I lied. Today was definitely the day!

Wet, rainy and soggy

We began in soggy Aracuai. I have to keep telling myself that this area and these people have been in dire need of this rain, so I should be happy that it is pouring, mud is everywhere, it’s hot and humid and I am constantly sweating like the proverbial stuck pig!

I was concerned the rain may impact our travels and sure enough, over breakfast I get the word that a trip to see the Agricultural Family School (EFA) would not be possible due to impassable roads.

I wasn’t too surprised, but inside I must admit, I was almost crying. EFA is the primary reason I have come to the Jequitinhonha Valley. This is the program I was most interested in learning about so I could do a better job of relating the needs of the children back to our donors. But, as the French say so well, “C’est la vie” – so close yet so far!

We took a taxi to Virgem da Lapa to meet with the local organization of CCF-Brazil.

While in Virgem da Lapa, we were given a review of the “Little House of Culture” that I mentioned yesterday, and the program that this unit operates. I also met Valmartin, who had been working at EFA for a few years and now is the program technical director for agriculture and water.

Valmartin was once a student at EFA and a former sponsored child. Now, not only is he the program technical director for EFA, he also works as a mentor for a group of students there.

The tutor/mentor program is extensive and works with groups of 8 to10 students. Each mentor meets with their students every two months for non-academic evaluation, study support and a huge range of additional support, such as personal planning.

After lunch and a tour of the local dentist office we went back to CCF Brazil and were met by Gilberto, CCF senior program specialist for education. He works with all the projects in this area of the Jequitinhonha Valley. Gilberto was talked into taking us to EFA in his 4x4. Valmartin also accompanied us on the trip.

Making our way to EFA

On our journey, Valmartin explained that the school has a bus to take the children to and from EFA. However, often when it rains, they cannot make the drive so the teachers and students must stay where they are. If they are at school, they stay at school. If they are at home, they must stay there until the roads are passable.

A hundred yards outside of town, the cobblestone streets ends and the clay begins. The road often cut into the land so the walls towered over the truck. Eroded rivulets, some often 3 to 6 feet deep, on each side of the road also hem us in, but Gilberto is a masterful driver and we finally saw the first sign to EFA -- still 7 kilometers away.

EFA has 130 students this year, about one-fourth of them girls. The children study 11 subjects. Six are academic consisting of math, Portuguese, literature, penmanship, science and health. The other five are agricultural subjects.

All materials for students at EFA are adapted to their unique needs. The students must contribute 5 Reals (comparable to $1) per month, while the rest of the tuition is covered by CCF and a small amount of assistance from the Minas Gerais Secretary of Education.

The school has a three-year course of work/study through a method locally titled “Alternance.” This means part of the month students are at EFA and part of the month they are at home to put into practice what they’ve learned.

When we arrived at EFA I was immediately struck by the noise. The voices of the children were everywhere; students were walking around, cleaning up after the rain, talking, singing and all were smiling.

It was evident that Valmartin is well liked by the students. As he got out of the truck he was met by some of the biggest smiles I have ever seen. While there was some good natured ribbing going on, there is also a great amount of sincere admiration for him.

We were met by the director, Jose Mario, and a majority of the staff. Staff members also live on campus all week and go home weekends – roads permitting.

The school is laid out to resemble a local community complete with a central area to gather. More students want to attend than EFA can accept and each potential new student must stay for a week to see if they like the concept. EFA really wants to expand into offering high school as the closest high school is 600 kilometers away!

The agricultural work and teachings focus heavily on water conservation through the newest methods available such as no-till, drip irrigation and genetics of crops.

Bananas, cattle and sugar cane, oh my!

The children grow their own food, food for the animal and sell any extra, which currently provides for 25 percent of their income. They want to raise that percentage substantially and become completely self-sufficient. However, to do so they need to work with the renowned expert in this field to help produce a business plan. They know they need to expand beyond their current size to have more products to sell at recognized local markets.

EFA owns a small parcel of land in partnership with the local CCF entity in Virgem da Lapa, so they could use this as a sales location if they had the product and they had a vehicle for transportation on a regular basis.

EFA has a basic layout for citrus trees such as mangos, papayas, oranges, cashew and bananas. They also have expansive areas for a wide variety of vegetable gardens; however they cannot grow vegetables in the rainy season because it kills the plants.

The students have an experimental greenhouse for year-round vegetable gardening, but this an expensive operation that they are just trying to start and also have a honey operation.

Students are also raising rabbits and guinea pigs since they reproduce rapidly. While rabbit and guinea pigs are not local foods, they are seeing an increase in acceptance of this meat in the local market as they take it there for sale.

EFA also has a goat, hog, sheep, cattle duck and chicken operation, but each of are too small to be adequate to provide more than just a small amount of product beyond EFA’s needs.

They have excellent land husbandry efforts to teach about crop rotation and grow sugar cane for food and animal feed. The school is working in partnership with Auburn University on how to re-forest damaged land and conserve water. Auburn is also working with CCF on a wider program for water usage, conservation and collection.

Students are in desperate need of materials for their academic programs. They are operating with minimal supplies and are in need of all the basic school supplies, especially books. Eighty percent of EFA students graduate to high school and 5 percent go back to work on the family farm.

We ended our visit over coffee and local bread – a local tradition in Brazil and one you do not turn down – and as the rains began again, we loaded back up and held our breath as we made it back to Virgem da Lapa.

Everyone I spoke with considers EFA a key effort of CCF Brazil and holds it as a high priority. Valmartin said he believes it is the most important thing we do.

While the demands are high, the resources scarce and the physical/geographical impacts significant, this is an amazing project of CCF Brazil and in my experience perhaps one of the most important and impactful programs I have ever seen.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Venturing in to the Jequitinhonha Valley

By Scott Phillips, Regional Development Officer (Great Lakes Region) for Christian Children's Fund

Bom Gia, or good morning, from the Jequitinhonha Valley of Brazil. I am spending a few days visiting projects and programs that CCF has in this intriguing area of Brazil, which I have been told are some of the best CCF operates.

After arriving at 4:30 a.m. in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais, Brazil, I met up with Dalton Said of CCF’s national office in Belo. Dalton introduced me to my traveling companion, Ana Paula, also from our office in Belo. Ana is charged with fundraising from companies in Brazil.

We set off on a 12-hour bus ride from Belo to the town where we will begin our adventure, Aracuai, in the Valley, and arrived to steady rain.

The entire Jequitinhonha Valley is chronically without water and is currently struggling with the worst drought anyone there can recall. Needless to say, residents are happy with the rain, even though it may be too little too late.

We went from the bus station to the Association office in Aracuai and from there to the town of Alfredo Graca. This is a community of 400-plus people. It’s so small it doesn’t even show up on any local maps.

The town refers to their difference in property as “water land” – land close to the river – and “land” – for everywhere else; a nod to just how important water is.

The community has a water distribution system for the river water, but it’s so polluted that it is rarely drinkable. Pollution stems from the lack of community municipal waste collection and, therefore, sewage being drained into the river.

Our visit to Alfredo Graca was centered on the “Little Houses of Culture.” This space is utilized to foster the local culture, to promote the socialization and integration of different generations, the practice of good citizenship, and the Family Income Generation Program (MEDI).

We met a group of four women from MEDI called the “Seed of Hope.” These four also come from a group of 22 families living on government provided land.

For 10 years they will pay a single fee to the government, after which they will finally own the land together. The families also have a piece of “water land” for cultivation work.

In this group’s “Little House of Culture” there is an oven to bake a local cookie made of flour and cheese that is almost in the shape of a pretzel. There also is a wood-burning stove on which they cook their fruit and vegetables for jellies, candy and a juice-based drink, a sink and a large open pan like a huge wok.

From nothing, these four women now have a license from the government to prepare and sell their food products. They sell at the local market in Alfredo Graca, a fixed location in Aracuai, the market and at festivals in other communities in Minas Gerais. They now even have a spot at a market in Belo.

Before their next license inspection, the “Seed of Hope” has big plans to fulfill. They must move their hand-washing sink into a new room in order to make a new clothes-changing space and add an impermeable layer to the roof. They also want to add a room with a gas industrial stove, a refrigerator and better work space for food preparation.

The group also insisted we see their “water land” and as we walked through the town of Alfredo Graca, I got a better feel for the community. In the center of town is a pretty church with a small square in front. The streets are all simple dirt roads and the homes along the roads vary in their condition and size.

Many women can be seen sitting in their homes, looking out the windows on the town and chatting with anyone who happens to come by. These women are the living embodiment of the fofoqueria dolls I see everywhere.

Fofoqueria means “gossip” in Portuguese. A doll made locally out of clay mimics the women who sit in their windows and gossip to pass the news of the community along. I see no cars in town, but note one motorbike (or moto as residents call them), and lots of horses!

Many of the homes have been painted with sand art. The women discovered that while they could not afford paint for their homes, they could use sand. With some native coloring agents they create different color sands and then mix them with an adhesive and paint their homes with the mixture to make them unique.

After we arrived at the “water land” we were able to tour a school that is a partnership with CCF Brazil, the community, the local government and the parents of the children. Among other efforts this school feeds 100 high-risk students (special needs and at risk for malnutrition), ecology efforts and efforts at educating about dengue fever.

They have a community garden in the back for their nutrition programs and they also have a classic rooftop rainwater catchment system to gather rainwater. These catchments are a basic idea, but a good one. And while CCF has placed many of these around the country, residents tell me they need thousands more, especially for individual homes.

On the way back to the inn we stopped at a fair trade handicrafts store. This store is staffed by students in the area and they specialize in art made from recycled parts. The art is amazing.

If they would only have been able to ship, I'd have a new dinner table made from wonderful wood recaptured from old homes with iron work in the center from recycled industrial parts, or at least a spectacular iron angel (sigh).

Tomorrow I’m on to Virgem da Lapa and the Family Agricultural School.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Big Day Has Finally Arrived

By Athena Boulgarides, Western Region Development Officer (North) for Christian Children's Fund

Finally; the big day is here! Before we ate breakfast we were asked – ever so kindly – to eat light. The roads up to the project site were very windy and therefore can cause motion sickness. In addition, they had Dramamine available for anyone who needed it.

What were we in for? We climbed into several vans and began our journey. Our drivers estimated it would take about four hours to get to the project site. About three-fourths of the way there, the roads became windy and unpaved in some areas.

The last 10 miles were … how can I explain? We could not go faster than 5-10 mph without damaging the car or turning our stomachs. One question kept running through my mind. What happens during the rainy season? Travel must be virtually impossible.

Suddenly, the Mae Kapu School was in sight! Study Tour participant Nikki Headlee remembered, “When we pulled up to the school and I saw all the kids standing there waiting to greet us, I just cried.”

We were greeted by the children, teachers and directors of the school with garlands made from jasmine and quickly escorted to a multi-purpose room.

While we were waiting, I took a moment just to take it all in.

The children were absolutely beautiful. Each possessed a countenance that appeared to be open, bright and vulnerable. The school buildings were modest and clean. It was larger that I had imagined with several buildings and lots of land for physical activities.

We learned about the school from a board made by the children especially for our visit. Then, finally, came the moment our sponsors had been waiting for.

Every sponsored child was invited to come up to the front of the room and CCF sponsors were invited to come up for hugs and hellos.

I’m so thankful I was there to witness the kind of love that makes our world such a beautiful place. Love that transcends language, culture, politics and day-to-day difficulties we all face. It was a moment I will never forget.

Balloons and bubbles aided the celebration. I thought we might have to show them how to tie the balloons – silly me – they knew exactly what to do with them.

The girls made crowns and tiaras while the boys made belts with swords and headdresses. They were so happy. One little girl gave me her balloon that she had on her head.

Study Tour participants who did not sponsor a child in Thailand engaged in several activities with the rest of the children and students from the school.

The Mae Kapu School serves 174 children who live scattered in five Poks, or villages, from kindergarten to ninth grade. Some of the Poks are up to 10 miles away from the school.

To deal with the commute, children walk to school Monday morning and stay until Friday when they journey back home to be with their families for the weekend. During the week they sleep in simple dorm type rooms. They do have one old TV, but access is limited so it’s rarely on. Blankets are hard to come by and the winters can get cold with no heating.

The children are instructed in activities that will lead to self-sufficiency such as gardening, farming and weaving. In 2005 the school joined a Distance Learning Program via satellite to aid computer learning. Through the program they received four computers and Internet access. The program was so successful that they received two additional computers in June 2008.

CCF’s intervention in the Mae Kapu School has brought about significant changes and improvements not only for the108 CCF children who now face hopeful futures, but also for the other children whose lives are also improved through CCF services that affect the entire community.

Success at the Mae Kapu School demonstrates that child sponsorship and program support can change the life of a child forever.

One former student, Pra Prachak Sothano, a Buddhist from the Karen tribe has become a visionary informal leader of the school and the communities.

“I finished fourth grade from this school and had a dream that all Karen should have the opportunity to learn Thai language so as to be able to give back to Thai society and His Majesty the king who allows us to live in Thai territory,” Sothano said.

The day was soon coming to a close, but we were not ready to leave! We were treated to a traditional wrist tying closing ceremony conducted by a monk and the tribal elder who has 10 children and the happiest Thai smile I had ever seen!

We all hugged each other and promised to write and e-mail. And in case you are wondering about Luc … he had a blast; finally having kids to play with!

The traditional Thai “Thank you” – “Kop Kun Ka” and “Kop Kun Krab” – somehow made it through the tears and echoed throughout the humble school. We took one final group picture and we were back in the vans.

The ride home was silent.

This experience could give new meaning to the word overwhelming. The day left us truly speechless and our hearts were filled with gratitude. All was right in the world, if only for a moment. And that moment that will last for all eternity.

While we have another day of sight-seeing in Thailand, the mission for trip has been accomplished and will remain with us forever. Thank you for reading.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Anticipation Builds to Meet the Children

By Athena Boulgarides, Western Region Development Officer (North) for Christian Children's Fund

Tomorrow is the big day! We are all excited to finally meet the children, see the school and celebrate Christian Children’s Fund work. Before that, we’ve taken in some more amazing sights from Thailand.

Yesterday, we visited Doi Inthanon, also known as the highest spot in Thailand. We also stopped at Luang National Park.

On the drive up I had the chance to speak with our guide Sid about the monks. According to Sid there are an estimated 1 million Buddhist monks living in Thailand. Each morning you can see them in the streets praying for the people. You are allowed to give them food which is considered giving alms – a gesture that earns merit for practicing Buddhists.

I learned a lot this morning from Sid and I was grateful for his patience with my many questions.
As we reached the top of the mountain my ears began to pop. The summit is 2,565 meters or 8,415 feet and you can feel it. The lush green landscape is home to 363 bird species and the national park that protects it is 482 square kilometers.

When we reached the top we all took pictures under the sign that says, “Highest Spot in Thailand.” We followed a short path to a little drink stand and gift shop that sold hand made souvenirs. The coffee in Thailand was fantastic, and if you are a coffee drinker, I highly recommend it.

We also traveled to the Napamyatanidol Chedis – built to honor the 60th birthday of the king and queen in 1982 and 1992 respectively - near the summit of Doi Inthanon.

What an absolutely remarkable sight! The carved walls that adorned the outside of the temple and the mosaic paintings inside the temples were an inspiration. I even met a very sweet monk who allowed me to take his picture inside the temple.

I think I have my Wai down pretty good now – don’t know if it will ever feel absolutely right – but the ritual is soulful and deeply satisfying.

Today it’s off to the Underground Empire. Can you say buried treasure?

Half-hidden behind a tranquil neighborhood of traditional wooden houses, Buddhist temples and longan orchards are the sprawling remains of Wiang Kum Kam, an ancient capital city that briefly ruled over Lanna, the former northern Thai Kingdom more than 700 years ago.

In 1984, archeology enthusiasts flocked to see Wiang Kum Kam’s uncovered gems of this historic site. At the heart of Wat Chang Kham is the main Chedi – Wat Chedi Liam.

When we arrived on the property we quickly learned that the main mode of transportation around this area was an adorable horse and buggy.

We stopped for lunch at the Salad House – healthy Thai food that was absolutely fantastic! Andrew promised Luc that if he finished his salad he could do the splits and sing “Ooo eee ooo aaa-aaa” for the staff at the restaurant and all of the Study Tour participants. He finished his salad and he performed. Our new Thai friends thought he was just adorable. Some things – like comedy – just translate well in any culture.

But enough with the sight-seeing. We’re all ready for tomorrow!

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thailand: More than I Ever Could Have Imagined

By Melissa Candela, CCF Sponsor and Athena Boulgarides, Western Region Development Officer (North) for Christian Children's Fund.

Today, CCF sponsor Melissa Candela wanted to contribute to our blog; here’s what she had to say:

I’ve wanted to come to Thailand since my ninth grade social studies teacher told the class about her trip here. She and her husband had traveled around the country for about a month in the summer of 1978 and that fall when we studied Asia in class she brought it alive.

I can only imagine what it must have been like getting here in the 1970s — it’s pretty grueling now (especially coming from New York where we live). Before the country was “discovered” by American tourists I’m sure the experience was even more foreign than it is to us. I’m sure far fewer Thais spoke English for one thing.

So my impressions? I’m just overwhelmed by Thailand, even more that I expected to be. And I haven’t even met Pornchanole, my sponsored child, yet. Talk about overwhelming! I’ve been writing to her for eight years, she is 16 now. What an experience it’s going to be to spend time with her.

Meanwhile we’ve had so many great moments here and it’s only Day 4. So far my favorite moment was when we first entered the inner area of the Grand Palace. The grandeur and grace of the architecture just literally took my breath away and I was wiping away the tears for the first twenty minutes we were there.

Again … I haven’t even met my sponsored child yet. I’m going to be a mess! It was also very moving to enter the Temple of the Emerald Buddha barefooted and to kneel on the cold tile floor. It’s a very elemental sense for me and it brought a feeling of gratefulness and humility. I want to know a lot more about Buddhism.

The temples, the markets, the people and the food … Thailand is more than I could ever have imagined and I’ve been imagining it for a very long time.

Yesterday and today we took in many more great sites of Thailand including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the adjoining Grand Palace, which is considered one of the greatest developments in Bangkok. It is home to more than 100 buildings and mosaics that date back to 1782.

We flew to Chieng Mai today to stay at the beautiful hotel called Kantary Hills. When we arrived at the hotel we were greeted by our hostess, Fah, with gorgeous jasmine necklaces!

After lunch, we were off to visit Doi Suthep, a fascinating temple that sits on top of a mountain that rises 1,676 meters above the city of Chieng Mai. On that spot (legend the legend goes) the Temple was built in 1383.

Doi Suthep is actually named for a legendary hermit, named Sudeva, who lived on the slopes. Before this, about 1,000 years ago, it was still known as Doi Aoy Chang (Sugarcane Elephant Mountain).

After a long trip down the mountain, we visited the Orchid Jade Factory where we were treated to a short video and a tour of their workroom. We learned how to determine the quality of jade and viewed the many different colors jade comes in including black, lavender and my favorite, imperial green.

The showroom was filled with gorgeous jade carvings, some smaller than a fingernail and an exquisite carved Buddha almost at large as the exercise ball in my living room. After a delectable buffet dinner at the Thai house we returned to Kantary Hills for the night! What a glorious day.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Day Two: Boats, Bargaining and Feeding the Elephants

By Athena Boulgarides, Western Region Development Officer (North) for Christian Children's Fund

We awakened to another beautiful day in Bangkok. The weather is similar to the springtime in Los Angles, so I feel right at home. Today we get to explore the famous Floating Markets Damneon Saduak in the Ratchaburi Province about 55 miles southwest of Bangkok.

We arrived at the market and were escorted to a chaotic flurry of activity. Small “khlongs” or canals were filled with an unending supply of long-tailed boats powered by an above board motor that docked only momentarily to pick up tourists and whisk them off down the river.

We eagerly jumped into the boats and took off. As we sped down the river we noticed that either side was filled with traditional Thai houses and Spirit houses. A Spirit house, or San Phra Phum, is a shrine to animist spirits found in Southeast Asia intended to shelter spirits that might bring bad luck if not appeased or honored.

Is this safe? That’s just one of the questions running through my mind. The boats seemed to zoom by each other with unbelievable ease, narrowly escaping what looked like almost certain collision! Some of us got pretty wet, but we all made it to the markets.

Let the bargaining begin. Shopping at Macy’s was never like this! As you moved among the boats and the stands filled with produce and souvenirs the locals shouted prices at us. And they were more than willing to negotiate, sometimes lowering the price before you even said a word. 100 Baht Madame! Deal for you just 80 Baht! OK?

Everyone seemed to find something wonderful at the markets and enjoyed the bargaining process. Luc (see the previous post for details on Luc) found a real scorpion encased in glass and Dale Nelson purchase a bone necklace that was just spectacular.

We got back on the bus and headed for lunch, the Rose garden and then a cultural show. Lunch at the In-Chan Restaurant in the Rose garden was absolutely delicious. And dancing among the roses we discovered some beautiful pink flamingos.

As we approached the venue for the Thai Cultural Show, we noticed that some elephants would be joining us.

When Luc saw the elephants and realized that he could feed them he was so very excited. Bananas and sugar cane were available to purchase for a few Baht. Luc’s mom, Ceta, of course let him feed the elephants. Before he did, however, he asked me, “What if they mistake me for the sugar cane. Because I’m small they might do it, right?”

I assured him that they know the difference and besides, he didn’t taste like bananas or sugar cane, so they really wouldn’t be interested. With all the courage he could muster, he reached out and placed the food in the elephant’s outstretched trunk. The elephant eagerly, but gently, grasped the food and brought it back to its mouth – amazing!

Then, it was showtime! The show included traditional Thai dancing, a parade of elephants, a Thai boxing exhibition and a traditional Thai wedding ceremony.

After the show we traveled to the Swissotel Le Concord for dinner and enjoyed a World Class Spectacular show called “Siam Niramit” or “Journey to the Enchanted Kingdom of Siam.” The Swissotel is known for its remarkable stage that is certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest in the world.

At one point in the show part of the stage was transformed into what appeared to be a river complete with rainfall and actors dressed as Kinaree, the mythical half woman half bird like creature. They flew across the stage … all the way to the top!

Unfortunately cameras were not allowed inside the theater so we will have to rely on our memories of this glorious show!

As the night ended, I know more sight-seeing is ahead, but I am eagerly waiting for the day our group meets the children they sponsor.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Smiling the Day Away - Arriving in Thailand

By Athena Boulgarides, Western Region Development Officer (North) for Christian Children's Fund

A group of Christian Children’s Fund sponsors are visiting Thailand to observe CCF’s programs. Here is Day One of their trip:

“Is there a McDonald’s in Thailand?” This is just one of the brilliant questions asked by our youngest Study Tour participant, 9-year-old Luc Dochterman from California.

I got to know Luc on the plane ride from Los Angeles International Airport to Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and learned that this is his third Study Tour with Christian Children’s Fund. He previously visited Ecuador and Mexico. And he sponsors two CCF children.

I feel so fortunate that all of the tour participants will have the opportunity to view this extraordinary experience through Luc’s unique youthful perspective!

We had a long day’s journey into night – or should I say into the wee hours of the next morning. We left L.A. at 1:50 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8 and landed in Bangkok at 1:06 a.m. Monday, Nov 10.

Time flies when you cross the international dateline!

Our tour guide Kiterom “Andrew” Kasemsri greeted our exhausted crew at the airport with a beautiful jasmine and rose garland called Puang Malai.

He taught us the proper Thai greeting, the Wai, along with the sentence Sawasdee ka for women and Sawasdee Krab for men.

I have to admit I did do some research on the rules of the Wai and was astonished. Suffice it to say “To Wai or not to Wai” will be the question du jour.

As we boarded the tour bus adorned with hot pink and light pink curtains we were excited to reach our final destination for the evening – the Royal Orchid Sheraton hotel. Sweet dreams of Thai smiles and the exciting journey that awaits us will assuredly fill our hearts and minds as we drift off.

I awakened to a remarkable view of the Chao Phraya River also known as the “River of Kings.” The group gathered at 10 a.m. in one of the hotel conference rooms for a briefing about the project we would be visiting in Chieng Mai.

CCF Thailand staff greeted each of us with warm Thai smiles, Wais and Saswasdees. If you ever watch a Thai perform the Wai, you’ll quickly see that there is more to it than meets the eye.

It is an amazing skill that requires patience, grace and lots of practice. I wondered how they performed it if they are carrying something? Do they just structure their day-to-day activities so their hands are empty and they are always Wai-ready?

At this point I was relaxed enough to really watch our CCF staff perform the Wai. OK, I think I’ve got it. Now my turn. My first attempt at really trying to Wai correctly – here goes. Hands together in Lotus position placed in front of the mouth, look at the person you are greeting in the eye, then bow slightly, as you rise look back at them, hands down.

Whew, I think I did. Surprisingly, I like it. It gives you time to really acknowledge another person’s presence and honor them in a way. I think I’m going to like the way of the Wai!

As the meeting began, we met Dr. Kanchada Piriyarangsan, the CEO of CCF Thailand. Dr. K, as they called her, treated us to a presentation about the project called “Love Beyond the Frontier.” The Chieng Mai Child Welfare project started in 1982 and now serves 1,872 families. In 1994 CCF Thailand started to work under the gracious patronage of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Dr. K shared CCF Thailand’s vision – Thai children are cared for, protected and developed to their fullest capacity, enabling them to be smart, good and healthy as well as contribute actively to national development.

During the briefing we also learned about the school we will be visiting in Mae Kapu. The school has been pursuing a learning model called P+Learn or “P-learn,” which means having fun while learning. The P+Learn teaching model has a standardized curriculum that is used throughout Thailand, but can be adapted to the unique teaching and learning styles of individual teachers and students.

We were all excited to see the school, but that would have to wait a few days. For now we are headed to the Bangai Arts and Crafts Center of HM Queen Sirikit.

The center has a fascinating history. For years, one of Queen Sikrit’s royal duties was to visit people in all parts of the kingdom. During her visits she encountered tremendous poverty and substandard living conditions. She was determined to relieve poverty through job creation which focused on improving the quality of the products produced.

She arranged for instructors to help villagers improve their skill levels so they were able to sell their products to the queen.

The successful project continued to expand and was formally established in 1977. Eventually land was dedicated to the project in 1980 and on Dec. 7, 1984, the center was inaugurated as the Bangsai Arts and Crafts Centre, the SUPPORT Foundation of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand, or “Bangsai SUPPORT Centre.”

The center featured rooms filled with one-of-a-kind creations made from various materials including glass, ceramics and silk. It was truly special.

Throughout the day our youngest Study Tour participant Luc sang what I suspect might become the unofficial theme of the trip – the tune from “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” I think you might know it so sing along if you like … “Ooo eee ooo aaa-aaa… Ting tang … Walla walla bing bang …Ooo eee ooo aaa-aaa ting tang walla walla bing bang!

A long and exciting day left us in awe of CCF’s work in Thailand and filled with memories of new experiences, new faces and a whole new culture to appreciate.

I think I am beginning to understand the Thai smile. While Thai eyes seem to laugh and sparkle they give nothing away. At times they seem to reveal an entire world filled with unexplored adventure lying just beneath the surface.

And if you Wai, and your eyes meet, you can catch a glimmer of the deep sense of knowing and joy they possess that I believe may be born out of their faithful commitment to serving their fellow human being. I can’t wait to see what surprises tomorrow holds.

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Big Family Across the World

By David Hylton, Public Relations Specialist

The smile on a child’s face … the warmth of a hug … watching the shyness disappear – these are all reasons Christian Children’s Fund sponsors travel on Study Tours to visit their sponsored children.

In June, several CCF sponsors traveled to Zambia on a Study Tour to meet children they only knew through letters and photographs, to see CCF’s programs first hand and to experience the culture of a foreign nation.

CCF Assistant Director of Marketing Gary Duncan says more than 600 sponsors have participated in CCF Study Tours since the program began in 2002. He describes the Study Tours as a big “family reunion.”

Here’s a look at what some of the sponsors experienced on their trip to Zambia:

Ebba McArt of Grantham, N.H.
Ebba met her sponsored child, 16-year-old Mercy. She said that although life is hard for Mercy, she has a strong and loving family. Mercy is thinking about becoming a journalist and is a good student who likes to read, Ebba said. She also likes to sing.

“There is no whining or crying from children even with harsh living conditions.” Ebba said. “Children seem well adjusted and happy.”

Alexandra Travis of Sante Fe, N.M.
Alexandra added to her sponsorship family while in Zambia. Before the trip in June, she had five sponsored children – one each in Vietnam, Mexico, and India and two in the United States. She decided to participate in this Study Tour because she always wanted to go to Africa. After seeing how many young children were orphans because of the prevalence of AIDS in Zambia, Alexandra decided to sponsor 6-year-old Natazia. “When I was introduced to her I melted,” Alexandra said. “It makes my heart soar to know I can change a family’s life and give comfort with the promise for a little bit brighter future.”

Jill and Katherine Drerup of Athens, Ga.
The mother-daughter team met 8-year-old Peggy on the Zambia trip. Peggy was shy at first and took a while to crack a smile, but she eventually opened up. This Study Tour was the third for Jill.

“I’m proud to pass on this legacy experience to my daughter,” Jill said.

Katherine, 17 and a senior in high school, plans to always help children in need.

“I’m definitely going to sponsor several kids when I get established. I feel like I have one big family across the world,” Katherine said.

Glynis Crabb of Hollister, Calif.
Glynis immediately connected to her 6-year-old sponsored child, Tisanke. Tisanke’s nickname, Tisa, bears a striking resemblance to Glynis’s granddaughter’s name – Tessa. There also was a family entrepreneurship connection – Glynis owns a horse farm while Tisa’s father is a farmer.

Tisa was initially very shy, but opened up after receiving gifts of a doll, a sweater and a backpack.

Glynis has been on five CCF Study Tours.

“The children in every country are the future of the world and they deserve the best that we can give them,” she said.

Patrick and Jenner Mathiasen of Seattle
The Mathiasens have a history of helping others in their careers – Patrick provides specialized care for elders as a psychiatrist geriatric; Jenner tutors disadvantaged children. Their work of helping others spreads overseas as they sponsor four children through CCF in Mexico, Thailand, Zambia and the United States.

The Mathiasens met their “small bundle of energy” Mervis on the Zambia Study Tour. Mervis’ shyness disappeared once they got to a playground to have lunch.

“I learned, once again, how I am surrounded by material wealth and take it for granted. We were given a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a small child,” Patrick said.

For more information on CCF’s Study Tours, click here.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Start with the Children

By David Hylton, Public Relations Specialist

All day you’ve probably seen what people think of poverty, what they’re doing to help those in poverty and, like our blog today, you’ve probably seen many first-hand accounts of poverty. The United Nations has a goal to halve poverty in the world by 2015 as part of its Millennium Development Goals, but how can we really combat poverty?

The answer is what we’ve been hinting at all day – the battle begins with children.

“The biggest force for transforming a culture of poverty is the children who grow up poor and gain the skills and self-confidence to change their lives,” says Christian Children’s Fund President and CEO Anne Goddard.

Children are the biggest agents of change. CCF works every day in 32 countries around the globe implementing programs to help children become young adults, parents and leaders who bring lasting and positive change in their communities.

“Working with children is crucial because if you can lift a child out of poverty, that child becomes a force in moving others out,” Goddard says. “If you change the life of a child, you change the future for their children.”

Nobody said fighting poverty was going to be easy. With thousands of people participating in Blog Action Day, we hope that you are more aware of this global problem. Together we can all make a difference.

If you want to know more about CCF and its efforts to fight poverty, click here to access our Web site.

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A Small Victory in a Big Fight

By David Hylton, Public Relations Specialist

The fight against poverty isn’t always about the bad news. Here’s a story on how one girl is living a better life because of Christian Children’s Fund.

Nine-year-old Celsia is now living a healthy life. It hasn’t always been this way. Celsia and her family, which includes three siblings, live in Timor Leste where 46 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, life expectancy is low and there’s a low education level.

In Celsia’s village, children lack access to health care, safe water and pre-primary education. In 2001, a partner affiliate of CCF Timor Leste started its service programs addressing the health, nutrition and pre-school needs of children younger than 6.

At 2 years old, a severely malnourished Celsia was a beneficiary of a supplementary feeding program.

When Celsia was 4, she joined the Early Childhood Development (ECD) activities of the partner affiliation. She learned the alphabet and numbers, as well as played and sang with her friends. The ECD activities prepared Celsia and her friends for their primary school education.

Now in her fourth grade, the ECD services continue to help Celsia through after-school tutorials. Celsia happily talks about the lessons, games and singing she has done through the ECD program. She says that the supplementary feeding program helped her to be healthy.

Celsia describes living in poverty as not having “the opportunity to have proper food, health care and school facilities.” Her parents remain determined to try their best to provide opportunities to Celsia, her siblings and the other children in their village.

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Breaking the Circle of Poverty in Taiwan

By David Hylton, Public Relations Specialist

Christian Children’s Fund is a member of the ChildFund Alliance, a family of 12 organizations that partner together to improve the lives of deprived, excluded and vulnerable children and their families in 56 countries. One of those organizations is Taiwan Fund for Children and Families (TFCF).

Through the Domestic Children Sponsorship Program, TFCF provides needy children with financial assistance and an opportunity to continue their education through sponsorship programs, scholarships and an emergency relief fund. Social workers track children’s situations with regular home visits and interviews.

In 2007, thousands of children and families received assistance through TFCF’s programs. More than 38,000 children received educational sponsorships; nearly 2,000 families encountering financial difficulties received money through the emergency relief fund; and about 800 children received medical care through a health insurance sponsorship program.

TFCF’s effort to break the circle of poverty also includes a family development program, a youth capacity building program and a head start program.

For more information on TFCF, click here.

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Poverty As Told Through Youth Voices

By David Hylton, Public Relations Specialist

Adults can try their best to explain to you how poverty is such a bad thing, but do you really believe what you’re hearing? We can give you the statistics and results from a study, but what does that mean?

To understand poverty and to be moved to take action to fight poverty, you have to hear about it first hand. The quote we left you with earlier today is only a small part of what poverty does to children. Here is how a group of youth in a CCF program in Honduras views poverty.

Wilmer, 15
Poverty is a problem that has been going on for a long time. Poverty is most damaging to young people, leading them to drugs, alcohol and other vices. Poverty is something that has not been controlled in our municipality. We have seen how this situation causes damage to children and youth due to discrimination by not having a roof, food and a decent life for a human being.

Poverty is manifested through malnutrition. Malnutrition is something that has not been controlled due to lack of resources to combat it. Lack of education is another manifestation of poverty in our town. Education is something that can help us reduce the force of poverty, and hence contribute to the development of our region.

Unemployment is also a product of poverty. By not having work, the person responsible for the household is not able to bring food to his or her family

Edgardo, 13
Poverty is a different condition that drives poor people to seek outlets in life. This continues to be the most humiliated condition by society. Poor people live in conditions in which they lack food, housing, clothes and health. By not having the opportunity to have what the rich have, poor people, and most of all young people, seek refuge in gangs and even steal to support their families. Children suffer when they become ill because there is no money to buy medicine.

Poverty is manifested by not having an education because of lack of money. Malnutrition is what most concerns because there is no food. People suffer because of ignorance in their minds, which brands them for life.

Idania, 14
Poverty is one of the things that greatly affects children, young people and adults. It is everywhere and limits the development of the communities. Poverty obstructs education, health and our way of life. Poverty makes you think that you are not the same as the others. Opportunities for the poor are also fewer.

In my municipality you can see that children have no clothes; their food is not good; there is no adequate medicine; there are no jobs; children sell vegetables on the street in order to make some money and not endure hunger; and children are malnourished.

Delmy, 14
I believe that poverty does not allow us to be better – it denies us the opportunity to be better people. It makes us live hungry, with no clothes and no medicine. That makes the non-poor see us as rare and that we don’t belong to society.

Poverty is seen in people that do no have adequate and safe housing. People eat a little so that the rest of the family can eat. Some don’t have the opportunity to learn to read and write. Sometimes people are forced to steal because of the difficult situation.

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