Center teaches entire families in Ecuador

Children and some parents wait for daily Mass to begin. (Photos by Patricia Lefevere)

QUITO, ECUADOR -- Can education alleviate poverty? One man who has lived with the poor of this South American capital believes that it can.

His name is John Halligan. The 78-year-old, white-haired Jesuit from South Bronx, N.Y., has spent nearly all of his priestly life with Ecuador's poor -- the last 45 in Quito among thousands of the city's "shoeshine boys."

An estimated 100,000 boys -- some as young as 6 -- ply their trade on the busy thoroughfares of this Andean metropolis. They are everywhere, their arms vibrating swiftly as they buff boots and loafers along Quito's boulevards and in its public squares. Darting between cars, they hawk newspapers, roses and a host of goods when cars pause for a red light. Some lug huge pots of water home to shacks that lack plumbing -- no easy task at elevations of 10,000 feet and higher.

For their efforts many of the boys earn up to 85 percent of their family's income. But they also forgo education. More than one-third of the city's working children do not attend school. Some are malnourished, none have medical or dental care, few grow up in stable families or get religious formation.

As founder and codirector of Quito's Working Boys Center, Halligan's passion is making sure that the boys -- and their families --become skilled workers and find jobs capable of moving them out of poverty.

Poverty begets poverty, Halligan said, noting that Quito has grown from 350,000 to over 2 million inhabitants in four decades. Most of the newcomers were driven to the capital by the difficulty of earning a living in the rural, coastal and mountainous areas. Many shoeshine boys have taken to the streets because their fathers or older brothers have had to emigrate, among the 3 million Ecuadorians who have gone abroad in search of jobs.

In 1964 Halligan's superior summoned him from his work with the indigenous poor in Chimborazo province, south of Quito. Reluctantly, Halligan relocated, doubting that he could do anything to ease the plight of street kids.

Soon he was inviting hungry boys to a free lunch in an attic above the Jesuits' Gonzaga High School. Within a month the line of lads grew from 11 to 250. Many balked at the unusual custom of having to wash their hands before eating and never returned. Those who stayed had to deposit 50 centavos in a savings account that Halligan -- called Padre Juan by the muchachos -- zealously guarded for them.

The motivated and charismatic priest with a mendicant's manner was not afraid to go begging money for his fledging project. "Those were the days when they had some nice parties at the American embassy," he recalled. Halligan was able to secure financial aid from Americans and others in Quito. A nun and six Peace Corps volunteers joined him to teach shoemaking, metal crafts and carpentry.

In 1967 Blessed Virgin Mary Sr. Miguel Conway arrived from Dubuque, Iowa. The working boys who watched her dispense tenderness with discipline soon dubbed her Madre Miguel. With a mother's priorities, she secured a new kitchen and served three meals a day. She also had water storage tanks, showers and toilets installed.

By 1968 a permanent center was built with its first grammar school. Classes were scheduled to allow the boys to work three half days so they could earn the money on which their families relied. Technical training complemented the grammar-school curriculum and was a way to keep boys in school while working.

Conway added a small library. It began as a recreational concept but has remained an essential part of all the center's educational efforts, Conway said. "This is an area where order and respect for others have become habitual," she said, pointing to a colorful sign urging pupils to "read in silence."

In 1974 the Working Boys Center (Centro del Muchacho Trabajador) moved from the Jesuit attic to a newly built structure in downtown Quito. Its codirectors, Halligan and Conway, believe the center is the only one in Latin America that addresses the problems of working children within a family context.

They call it a "family of families" and point to parents and children -- girls as well as boys, from infants to adolescents -- who participate in classes, adult and vocational training, and religious services. They also eat three meals a day at the center. "It's a total family development program, from nursery school to preparation for the workforce to spiritual formation to strengthen family life," the priest said.

Parents who want their children to attend the center must make a commitment to work toward the alleviation of the family's poverty. No child can graduate from primary school unless his parents have attended and passed literacy classes.

Budgeting and saving

Both children and their elders are taught the principles of savings and of family budgeting. Working children must put aside a portion of their earnings each week -- as determined by the student -- and deposit it into a personal savings account.

Many leave with $400 to $500 in savings -- enough to buy a set of tools, rent an office or invest in further higher education, Halligan said.

More than 5,000 families (25,000 individuals) have graduated from the center's program over 45 years. Almost 5,000 people have earned professional licenses as auto mechanics, carpenters, industrial mechanics, bakers, cosmetologists, plumbers and professional seamstresses.

In 1981, the organization opened its second campus in the north of the city on five acres of land donated by the Jesuits. Families in the downtown center canvassed the neighborhoods of the north and doubled the number of families in the programs.

With a USAID loan, Halligan was able to build classrooms, workshop areas for technical education, sports facilities and a precinct of shops to sell the center's products. Students improve their marketing skills by selling handmade furniture, toys and baked goods. They also earn a modest income in the restaurant and the beauty salon.

On any given day the two sites serve 255 preschoolers, 520 grammar school pupils, 380 teenagers enrolled in hands-on "education for work" programs, plus 180 mothers and fathers studying in adult education classes. Children and adults in the program partake in some 35,000 meals served each week. The average stay at the center is 8.2 years.

Halligan said he founded the center to guarantee the rights of working boys and their families and to promote their human dignity. "There has always been and will always be child laborers," he said, "even if the [International Labor Organization] thinks it can outlaw them. … We espouse the right to work, but don't want children to be exploited."

By educating the entire family, the center appears to be doing something unique in Ecuador, where the majority of government programs are short-term handouts, requiring no responsibility on the part of the receiver. "Ours is not a charity program. It's a commitment to changes for all who choose to make them," Halligan said.

Although most Ecuadorians are Catholic, religion is not a prerequisite of the program. But classes begin with prayer. Classrooms display crucifixes, and colorful murals -- often depicting religious themes -- adorn many walls. Mass is a daily option, frequently attended by parents and their offspring.

Analyzing the impact

In 2006 the center was able to analyze the effect of its operations on working boys and their families in a 101-page impact study, in which 30 percent of its graduates gave responses. The 1,740 who took part in the study demonstrated punctuality, politeness and dignity during the interviews and focus groups, Halligan said. They also showed the independence that had resulted from the financial autonomy they'd developed since leaving.

Many in the impact study considered the library one of the center's most valuable services. Libraries are rare or nonexistent in much of Ecuador.

Computers are also a rarity in Ecuadorian schools, especially up-to-date models. Last year Dell gave the center 99 computers, many of them now stationed in the libraries at both locations. Blessed Virgin Mary Sr. Cindy Sullivan, whom Conway calls "our technical miracle worker," was able to outfit them with the latest software.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in 1974, Sullivan was assigned to teach at the center. Not only did she fall in love with the pupils, their parents and the staff, she also found her vocation. A native of Massena, N.Y., Sullivan returned in 1981 as a Blessed Virgin Mary sister. Alongside Halligan and Conway, she is one of its seven codirectors.

Another is Carlos Gomez Luna, a former shoeshine boy, who in 1964 got kicked out four times for infractions. Gomez pleaded with Halligan for another chance. The Jesuit required that the boy break all ties with the gang with which he had hung out, that he be at school before going to work and that he make a commitment to educate himself and to use his learning to better his family's life. Gomez did. Today he too is a director.

Graduates comprise more than 50 percent of the center's staff of 212. Some 70 percent of them have been there more than five years and many have worked 25 years or longer. Among them are six religious, 14 program coordinators, 100 teachers and technical instructors, 19 health care professionals, nine administrative and accounting personnel, 52 maintenance and service employees and 15 volunteers.

Many of the 900 volunteers who have served the center have come from Jesuit high schools and universities like Marquette University and Fairfield University and Le Moyne College, arriving to help during spring break, summer vacation or as part of their semester-abroad study. Others are full-time volunteers committed to 10-hour days, six days a week over 12 months. They live in private quarters at the center's North Quito campus, but eat all their meals in common. A visitor can spot them teaching art and music, helping in the daycare centers or working with special-needs children.

The center's most recognized success has been its technical training. The institution was declared the best technical school in the nation in 1997 and 2002. Marco Polo, who directs technical education, recalled the day he heard from the Ministries of Education and Labor of the award. "That was the best day of my 30 years here. But every day is a good day," he told NCR, "because I love the work; I love the families."

The future

Halligan admits that among Quito's 100,000 shoeshine boys, they may have reached only 5 percent. Still, the Jesuit knows from experience that only about 10,000 of the street kids would stay in such a program if all were offered the opportunity. "Tell them about having to shower daily before they can get breakfast and most are out the door," he said.

Asked about any plans to step down, Halligan -- tall, thin, able to climb flights of stairs at a rapid clip and to drive a red pickup through clogged Quito streets -- laughs and asks: "Do I look like a man who's going to retire?"

Would he stay on to direct a third center, as demand for one is growing? He answers with a pencil. "It costs us $2 per person per day to feed, educate and provide health care here. That comes to $62 a month per person or about $750 per year." A third campus of similar or larger size would, he reckoned, cost $5 million to create and staff.

Private donations -- about 75 percent of them from the United States -- constitute the largest share of the $1.5 million annual budget of the two campuses. The global financial downturn has hit Ecuador too, said Sullivan, who makes three or four trips abroad each year to fundraise.

Not all contributors are American. Japanese automakers have given a fuel-injected car so that those learning auto mechanics have the latest model on which to practice. In 1997 the Japanese also donated a clinical laboratory, and the Italians gave a grant toward health promotion. Spain has provided aid and Holland, Ireland and Germany have sent volunteers.

Conway said she used to worry about how the center would meet its $4,000-a-month costs in the late 1960s. That figure has risen to $125,000 a month in 2009, but her anxiety has not grown. "This is a faith-based operation," the nun said. "I've never felt the hand of God on a project so much as this one. It has been sustained for 44 years. God has always found a way. If God, who is the CEO here, wants us to have another center, we'll have it."

Halligan believes Ecuador's economy will rebound, but added: "Unless the attitude of society changes from one of piecemeal handouts for the poor, to one of teaching them how to alleviate their own poverty and be responsible for their prosperity," then programs like those he founded may continue to be a drop in the bucket.

What gives Halligan hope is observing the third generation of shoeshine boys and their families now at the center. He noted with pride: "85 percent of those who went through our program have left poverty behind."

Patricia Lefevere is a frequent contributor to NCR.

Programs aims to foster health-care awareness

For a population perched on the margins of society, health care is largely unknown. Babies are birthed at home and mothers get little or no pre- or post-natal instruction. Children seldom if ever see a doctor due to their family's lack of income and health insurance, and because parents are uneducated about health care.

That grim assessment is not just true for the families of Quito's shoeshine boys, but it also describes the situation in much of Ecuadorian society, according to Giuliana Hidalgo, who directs health care at the Working Boys Center and oversees a staff of 18 physicians, dentists, nurses, laboratory workers and a psychologist.

"Education is key to achieving and maintaining good health," said Hidalgo, who holds a doctorate in public health. Children who attend the center are screened for childhood diseases and inoculated against them. Their mothers receive an annual pap smear and are trained to do breast self-examination. Preventive and primary care are extended to the entire family.

Every member receives a dental checkup twice yearly and learns about dental hygiene and cavity prevention. Eye care is also provided.

Children enrolled at the center have to shower before they can eat, and frequent hand-washing is also urged. By becoming more conscious of hygiene, Hidalgo hopes students will develop lifelong habits to prevent parasites and gastrointestinal, respiratory, skin and tissue illnesses -- all common ailments in Ecuador.

Hidalgo also developed a program that has trained some 100 mothers and fathers as health promoters. They learn disease prevention, rehabilitation therapies and how to cure sickness. The training prepares them for jobs in health care and prevention, she said.

"We've found a change in basic health-care awareness," Hidalgo told NCR. "It is now linked to well-being rather than to absence of illness."

Hidalgo directs a program of physical and psychological therapy for special-needs children. Designed to foster independence and to help them get socialized, "the goal is self-sufficiency -- the ability to bathe and dress themselves," she said.

A fourth health-care initiative, known as the "Drop of Milk" program, is designed for children who are malnourished. It offers daily milk, nutritional supplements, medical attention and parenting skills to mothers in the wider community of Quito. Women who come to class get five liters of milk per week.

-- Patricia Lefevere

Education and skills training bolster home ownership

Owning one's own home is a key indicator of prosperity, especially in a poor nation like Ecuador. Children and teens who once made their living shining shoes or selling items on the street most often lived in a room with their family before coming to the nonresidential Working Boys Center.

But a study carried out in 2006 on the impact of services provided by the center to some 5,000 families over four decades reveals that a large majority went on to become homeowners after graduating from the center's grammar school and its three-year technical and vocational training programs.

Among the 1,740 graduates polled -- about 30 percent of the center's graduates -- 29.9 percent indicated they lived in houses before coming to the center, whereas 71.3 percent resided in houses in 2006. Likewise 60.3 percent of the group surveyed lived in single rooms before joining, compared to just 2.9 percent having such accommodations in 2006.

The figures demonstrate that the education and skills training obtained at the center have enhanced the living conditions of children who were on the margins of society, said Fr. John Halligan, codirector of the center. The desire for self-improvement, the habit of saving and a steady income that results from mastering a trade or skill are necessary if one expects to own a home, the Jesuit said.

One of the center's main activities has been organizing groups of volunteers to take part in mingas (community work) on the weekends. More than 900 such work brigades have built houses and improved domiciles for Quito's poor families, thereby enhancing a spirit of community among them.

Volunteers and a skilled builder meet to decide on the project and devise a weekly schedule to accomplish the job. The work brigades -- usually 10-12 volunteers -- make their own mud bricks. The center supplies just the materials needed for a weekend's tasks. "If we gave them everything to do the job at the start of the project, it might all be stolen by week two," said Halligan, who has seen more than 300 new homes go up through the efforts of the work brigades.

-- Patricia Lefevere

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