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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