SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Like most young boys from the outskirts of major cities, Claudio Luna seemed to have only two options in life: become a soccer player or a criminal.
But in 2008, Luna found a path leading to a brighter future: the NGO Casa do Zezinho (House of Zezinho).
It was there where he learned the basics of managing a business and relating to his colleagues.
Luna, now 18, studies business administration at Paulista University and English at the Fisk Language School. At the beginning of the year, he began an internship in the social projects department of the French bank Société Générale.
Luna is just one of the more than 500,000 residents of the Capão Redondo neighborhood on the south side of São Paulo. The region has at least 85,000 residents living under highly vulnerable social circumstances, which means the rate of violence is higher than citywide averages, according to the State System of Data Analysis (SEADE). The residents also have restricted access to public schools, health clinics, movie theaters, performance spaces and other areas of leisure, as well as poor sanitation.
Casa do Zezinho, which already has offered paths to a brighter future for more than 10,000 children, adolescents and young adults, was created in 1994 by Dagmar Garroux, who’s known throughout the area as Tia Dag (Aunt Dag).
Tia Dag, a 56 year-old educator, specializes in working in the slums and teaching the children of political exiles. In the 1980s she devoted her efforts to hiding adolescents targeted by death squads.
“São Paulo has rivers (Tietê and Pinheiros) that separate the center from the outskirts, and the bridges became Berlin Walls,” she says.
The NGO’s goal is to help the zezinhos – as Tia Dag’s students are called – cross those bridges. As they proceed toward the opportunities that await them on the other side, they acquire autonomy to think, act and distance themselves from crime.
“Every obstacle that we can put in the way of drug trafficking is important,” Tia Dag says.
Unconventional educational approach
The strategy at Casa do Zezinho is anything but conventional.
But it gets the job done.
Years ago, Tia Dag persuaded an adolescent girl to quit a life of prostitution by asking her why she subjected herself to earning a measly R$10 (US$6.30) for her services. Tia Dag, who did not want to be judgmental toward the girl, said the best thing to do “would be to go to the capital city of Brasília and charge R$3,000 (US$1,900) for the same service.”
But Tia Dag told the girl she needed an education, which the girl found at Casa do Zezinho.
The girl has grown up – and works as a dentist.
Casa do Zezinho’s success is attributed precisely to its teaching method: The educators listen to what their students have to say and act as advisors.
Michael Douglas dos Santos, 16, a zezinho since 2009, says Casa do Zezinho’s teachers gave him confidence.
“I was shy. I hardly ever spoke,” he says.
In normal schools, both public and private, the teachers impose their knowledge, Tia Dag says.
“In school, I’m obligated to attend, but I don’t want to. And here, there’s no obligation, but I want to,” says Caroline Pereira, 15, who has been at the NGO for five years and plans to study design in college when she finishes high school.
Tia Dag was recently invited by the University of San Francisco, in California, to speak about her experience with Casa do Zezinho in Capão Redondo.
Agent of change
Casa do Zezinho is housed in a 3,200-square meter (34,432-square foot) facility that serves 1,500 students between the ages of 6 and 21 daily.
When Tia Dag started to work in Capão Redondo, 17 years ago, she had a mere 20 square meters (215 square feet) in which to serve 12 children.
The work of the NGO in the neighborhood, which used to have 17 robberies a day, wound up increasing the price of real estate in the region, Tia Dag says.
Homemaker Rosália da Silva Santos, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, has seen the improvements firsthand.
Since 2007, her daughter Samara, 10, has been a zezinha. Last month, Rosália enrolled her son Mateus, 6, at the NGO.
Rosália also directly benefits from the work of the NGO. Since May, she has had access to a library with 1,000 books, inaugurated in a local favela with the support of Casa do Zezinho and renowned architect Marcelo Rosenbaum.
Sisters Jennifer, 17, and Jenyssis Chaves, 15, have been frequenting the NGO, Monday to Saturday, since 2002. At Casa do Zezinho, they participate in chorus, capoeira, computing, percussion, orchestra and journalism workshops.
Casa do Zezinho receives a fifth of its R$4 million (US$2.5 million) annual budget from municipal, state and federal governments, with the rest provided by the NGO’s 200 associates and more than 50 partners from the private sector.
And the help from companies is not limited to money.
“We make the head of the company cross the bridge,” Tia Dag says. “He comes here and gives a talk, to show just how far it is possible for each person to go.”
And the zezinhos also experience life at these companies.
Société Générale, a partner since 2008, will have donated R$400,000 (US$253,250) to the NGO by the end of the year. In addition, it offers 15 positions a year to zezinhos in the company’s apprenticeship program. The bank provides 200 volunteers for the NGO.
“We have mostly volunteers (around 60) to give talks about employability, since that is our primary focus,” says Celso Estrella, project manager at the Instituto Société Générale.
And the Grupo Pão de Açúcar helps by buying and reselling in its São Paulo stores artisanal products made by the zezinhos’ mothers, with all proceeds going to the women.
“Initiatives such as Casa do Zezinho are extremely important for local human development,” says Daryalva Bacellar, social responsibility manager at Pão de Açúcar.
Even with such active partners, Tia Dag does not take a break.
She continues to seek more support.
She knows that there are many other Claudios, Jennifers, Michaels and Carolines who need help crossing the bridge that separates social vulnerability from the world of opportunities.
“I have something that nobody else in the world has: I get more than 1,000 kisses a day,” she says.
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