Making a Difference amid Abject Poverty

Dec 06, 2003 10:50 AM EST

Gustavo is five years old and he grunts when you ask him a question. Last year, one of his brothers set fire to their house and Gustavo was trapped inside. Luckily, he was rescued and survived the fire, but the trauma caused him to lose his ability to speak. Sylvia, 6 years old, had awful abdominal pains one day and her mother brought her to the health post. The medical personnel spent about five minutes with Sylvia and diagnosed her case as simply a bad stomachache. They recommended an over the counter antacid to settle her stomach. The pains persisted and by evening Sylvia was fainting. Her mother carried her on the bus to the nearest hospital where it was discovered that she had appendicitis. She was rushed into surgery.

Henrique, now 3 years old, could barely walk a year ago because he was so severely malnourished, weighing only six kilos. His mother had abandoned him and a neighbor "adopted" him. Over the year, she helped to bring him back to health and today he is still a little unsure on his feet, but weighs close to 12 kilos.

Rosa, 25 years old, was pregnant with her fourth child and due in a month. Her husband had just been arrested for drug trafficking and left her and three kids in a cardboard shack built over the sewer. She had absolutely no income and was desperately trying to maintain her sanity. She later put her newborn up for adoption for fear of not being able to feed yet another mouth.

These are all people who are accompanied by leaders of the Pastoral da Criança (The Children's Ministry). The Pastoral da Criança, a ministry of the Catholic Church now celebrating 20 years of service, accompanies children from 0 to 6 years old and pregnant women who are at risk of malnutrition. It involves regular visits to the families, monthly weight checks to follow the development of the children, distribution of multimistura (a nutritional supplement), health care advocacy and pastoral counseling. In the parish where I work, the Pastoral da Criança is present in three favelas (shantytowns) and accompanies over 300 children and a handful of pregnant women. The parish team is made up of 25 volunteer leaders.

The core of the Pastoral's work is visiting families. Part of my job as coordinator is to accompany the leaders on these visits. It is in these visits that my eyes have been opened and my heart touched deeply. When you enter into the home of a family, you are entering into their most intimate space.

Most often a family will live in one or two rooms, so a visitor can see their living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom in one quick glance. Once you get into their homes they usually can't hide the pain and instability of their lives. I've met mothers who literally can't feed their children. Others who, under the stress of unemployment and an absent partner/spouse, get drunk and abuse their children.

I've met children who are malnourished, play barefoot in the sewer, have infestations of lice in their hair and scabies on their bodies. I've seen babies with unknown causes of fever and suspicious coughs. And, I've encountered kids who can't walk or talk because they've suffered from trauma or persistent abuse or malnutrition.

The leaders are really the heart of the Pastoral. The amazing part is that they are all volunteers. Some work a 9-5 job during the week and dedicate their weekends and free time to the Pastoral. Through their initiative, we've started several "mothers' clubs," where mothers of children in the Pastoral can go to learn handiwork and meet with other mothers.

The leaders have helped to find psychological counseling for mothers and their kids, have accompanied families through the bureaucracy of the public health system, sought help for women suffering domestic abuse, offered mothers orientation on how to care for their newborn babies and have listened many, many, many hours to mothers (mostly…because the fathers are often absent) needing to "desabafar," which is Portuguese for "blow off steam."

If it weren't for the hope and enthusiasm with which the leaders do their work, I think I would have given up a long while back. The health situation can seem so hopeless and dire because of the depth of the problems. The leaders' faith and their example have given me the courage to carry on. Many of them are as economically poor as the families there are visiting and accompanying. I often think they are truly giving from their sustenance and not their surplus.