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In the News: Curitiba, Brazil
Protecting Brazil's children

by Patrick Novecosky

When Suzanne Zavatter returned home from her recent trip to the slums of Brazil, the first thing she wanted to do was hug her two daughters. As she embraced them, her thoughts turned to the children at a daycare facility in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba.

"I thought of how the children who attend this center are safe and cared for like my own," she explained, "but then of the other poor children there who are still on the streets and at risk. The needs are so great."

A safe haven for children

The center she's talking about is a ministry of St. Raphael Parish. Run by the Marians of the Immaculate
Conception, the facility serves more than 100 preschool-aged children in one of Curitiba's poorest neighborhoods. More than 200 are on its waiting list.

Suzanne, who works as Fr. Joseph's Assistant for Special Gifts, visited the ministry, along with Fr. Kaz Chwalek, MIC, Econome for the Province of Marians in Stockbridge, MA.

"The daycare center in Curitiba looks almost like the ones here in the States," she says. "It is clean and has running water. But when you look out the window, there are dogs running loose, the smell of garbage, and shanty houses with dirt floors. It's quite a contrast."

A life of poverty is something many Brazilians take for granted. The poor live in crowded shantytowns or favelas, where unemployment, abysmal living conditions, gang violence, and drug abuse are commonplace.

Despite the poverty and difficult living conditions, St. Raphael Parish is thriving in predominantly Catholic Brazil. The parish helps residents find faith and build a better life for their children. Three Marian priests oversee operation of the daycare center and serve more than 150,000 parishioners in two locations.

Struggling against the odds

"It's a lot of work for them," says Fr. Kaz. "They are really helping to build a middle class in a country with a sharp divide between the very rich and the very poor. The parish provides resources that aren't available anywhere else."

The Marians' work in Brazil is compounded by the abysmal poverty, lack of legal protection for basic human rights, and an increasing number of abandoned children and gangs made up of runaways who make their living by stealing. Many are forced or sold into child prostitution.

"I was really impressed by my brother priests in Rio de Janiero," Fr. Kaz says. "They work in conditions that most people in the United States would find really frightening. I was a little fearful myself, walking into the favela with its narrow passages, huts riddled with bullets, open sewers, rats, and armed gangs. My fear disappeared when we reached the church, packed with people of all ages who clearly appreciated our visit."

In the midst of these conditions, the Marians provide a stable environment for families, Fr. Kaz says. "The daycare program, schools, and sports facilities that they run in Curitiba all provide a safe environment for learning and recreation," he says. "By helping parishioners to better themselves, their lives will improve. They will be able to get better jobs and have much more stability for their families."

Suzanne agrees. "The daycare center provides a place where the children can be safe and have a positive example for the majority of their day," she says. "At the center, they are fed, bathed, and protected. Out on the street, the example is one that their parents don't want them to follow."

Trying to protect more children

Providing for children most at risk in Brazil's favelas can be a daunting task, says Sr. Annete Giordani, ASCJ, the facility's director. The government pays the center $15 per month per child, but costs run as high as $40 per month per child.

"I spend most of my day on the phone, asking businesses and individuals to make up the difference, so we can keep the center open," she says. "More than 600 families depend on us for support -- especially for food."

The St. Raphael daycare center provides meals, immunizations, and education for the children five days a week. Sister Annete, two other nuns, and a host of parents and volunteers provide the labor, while funds are used for upkeep of the building and property, toys, food, and medicine.

Last year, the Marians were given the opportunity to expand their ministry to children. They acquired an unfinished building near the present daycare facility that was designed to be used for daycare. With the growing demand for childcare within the parish and the surrounding community, the Marians are eager to complete the building and care for more children.

"It's a potentially beautiful building in a good location," Fr. Kaz explains. "But as much as they're trying to raise the funds locally, they just can't seem to do it. They have the walls and roof up, but the inside is completely unfinished."

More funds urgently needed

More than 20 percent of Brazilians live below the poverty line. According to the World Bank, the average annual per capita income in 1999 was only $4,400. Conditions in the favelas have changed slowly for the better since the Marians arrived in 1969. But many challenges remain, especially adequate funding for new projects.

"It's so hard to raise funds in the midst of poverty," Fr. Kaz says. "It will be very challenging for them. It costs so much to keep the existing daycare center open, let alone finishing the work on a second facility. And when it's built, they will need to gather twice the amount of monthly support."

Parishioners have recently organized something similar to America's "Million Moms March." Hundreds of mothers are rallying to demand that the government provide more funding for daycare centers like the one at St. Raphael.

"I can really see why they're so vocal," Suzanne says. "The children who go to daycare are very fortunate. It's a dream come true. Many mothers wish they could provide something like this for their children."

How you can help

To help provide daycare for more children in Brazil, please send your offering to us quoing code WI.

Association of Marian Helpers
Eden Hill
Stockbridge MA 01263

To arrange a special gift for Brazil, please call Suzanne Zavatter at 1-800-462-7426.

©2001 Marians of the Immaculate Conception. All rights reserved.