Thursday, November 20, 2008

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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