Maria Merlo
BrazilFellow since 1991

Maria Merlo Quarenghi, recognizing that working with children requires lots of love and time, has mobilized a large-scale volunteer movement to work with children already on the streets, and others at risk of ending up there.

#Paraná#Italian Brazilian#Polish Brazilian#The Streets#São Paulo#Curitiba#States of Brazil#White Brazilian

The Person

Maria wanted to be a teacher since she was a child growing up in the city of Sao Paulo. She earned a degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in sociology and development. She taught for several years at the University of Sao Paulo while working in the Sao Paulo urban planning agency overseeing a team of forty professionals. When she moved to Curitiba, Maria volunteered to work with street children. Her businesslike, driving and creative sense of organizing quickly became apparent, and, less than six months after her move to Curitiba, she was in charge of the street children initiative of the municipal government. "I had more than a thousand children to cater to and virtually no money -- I had to be creative. And I believe my professional training helped me to look at the possibilities in nonorthodox ways. I haven't discounted any options, be they for fundraising or for improving the children's future."

The New Idea

Five years ago Maria was invited to work with the mayor's wife on the growing problem of street children in Curitiba, Parana's capital. At the beginning of 1991, this same mayor of Curitiba was elected governor of Parana--and one of the strongest points in his platform was his program for street children modeled on his and Maria's successful experience in Curitiba. This approach educates, trains, feeds, clothes, finds employment, and provides medical and dental services for masses of children at risk, all at virtually no cost to the government. The key to Maria's success is the very broad support she has brought to bear from many individuals and organizations from every aspect of society. Maria understood, as soon as she started, that working with children, especially children at risk, is unavoidably love and labor-intensive. This is work for volunteers, for the community. It is work for which bureaucracies are ill-matched. Maria developed and runs her organization, ASSOMA, with financial contributions from businesses and individuals and with volunteer work from many segments of society, ranging from retirees to students, from wealthy ladies to neighborhood leaders. This approach is unusual in the Brazilian context where there is little perceived tradition of charitable giving and volunteer work outside the Church. "Many people responded negatively. They said it could not be done, but I knew it wasn't true--there are so many people wanting to help, it is just a matter of channeling their resources, skills, and availability properly. We all benefit." Now Maria is using a network of Parana State mayors' wives to spread her broad-based volunteer model to every municipality in the state. She is particularly helping to set up regional ASSOMAs adapted to the more rural environment of the interior of Parana. In addition to her direct help to children at risk, she is working with farmers' groups and the state's powerful nonchemical agriculture network to help families find ways to make a decent living in the rural areas. "Most of the people want to stay where they are if they have any chance of making a decent living. They migrate to the cities in desperation. They have no skills to compete in the cities, where unemployment is already high. They know of homelessness and the threats to their children's future, but they have no options." While still building a network that engages mayors' spouses as a convening resource, Maria is increasingly working to build ASSOMA into a independent, secure foundation-like organization. ASSOMA will be able to focus more and more on developing and testing services for the children it serves, having established a critical volunteer base.

The Problem

The problem posed by thousands upon thousands of children who spend their days working the street of the large Brazilian cities is notorious. They roam the streets selling newspapers and gum at stoplights, watching parked cars for a fee, perhaps panhandling. According to Maria's socioeconomic study of Curitiba's street children and their environment, most children have some kind of family connection and home to which they return periodically. Her survey also discovered that most of them have been to school for at least two or three years but then dropped out. The main reason they gave for quitting school was their perception that education would not make a difference in their lives or improve their lot in the future. "By going to school they forgo present income, badly needed by their families, without the belief they'll make up for it in the future. And they may even be right: conventional government schools are geared to preparing children in higher education. There are very few opportunities for vocational training with a payoff after a few years of schooling. They prefer living for today, the immediate rewards of freedom, and money they can get in the streets." Federal and local governments, both struggling with and as a result of Brazil's severe economic crisis, have been unable to handle the growing number of children already in the streets -- let alone to address the root causes of their growing numbers and plight. Hundreds of nongovernmental secular and church groups have been working with street children, but very few have made a dent in the problem. Success usually is restricted to a very small number of children and is associated with a group led by a charismatic figure. As the problem grows, so does the negative reaction of the middle class, which sees these children as a threat to their safety and a scourge to Brazilian society. Seeing no practical options, the average Brazilian wishes these children would disappear, and many Brazilians believe they should be confined in some place where they are not a threat to "decent" people. On the other hand, there are many people who are honestly concerned and would like to help by contributing their energy, time, and skill -- and also their money. Unfortunately, partially due to the long military dictatorship that discouraged popular participation, there are virtually no organizations that know how to put such resources to work, or how to involve the broader community, including business, to further their cause.

The Strategy

"Our ultimate goal is to reintegrate the child to society." says Maria. "We want them to get back to school, get back to their families, whenever possible, and to get jobs which will allow them to support themselves. ASSOMA is supposed to be a bridge between the dysfunctional situation in which they are living and a 'normal' life." The first step in the reintegration process is getting these children, some of whom are already adolescents and have been out of school for a long time, back into the classroom. To attract the children back to school, ASSOMA offers food, clothing, and medical services. It also offers scholarships, depending on the child's progress, to make up for the loss of income the child would have earned had he or she stayed in the streets. Maria reports that most children opt to keep this money in special savings accounts set up by the school and administered by government authorities. "Many save because they want to continue their education. It makes us very proud because it shows they now believe in education and are hopeful for a better future." This better future is built out of long-term changes that are sometimes hard to detect. Maria's approach triggers these deeper changes in the children -- as the story of ASSOMA's new building attests. She has developed self-esteem and promoted a "can do" attitude in the kids: "The children dreamed about having a beautiful building with glass from floor to ceiling. Everybody said we were crazy, but we did it! We got volunteer architects to design a school with the children, and we got the land from the municipality and material donated from businesses around town. The kids built the school they designed. They also maintain it proudly -- backed by a penalty system for anybody breaking or getting anything dirty." The experience of building the school also provided other valuable lessons. The children interacted with the donors and volunteers, with a very powerful impact on both sides. From the children's point of view, it was an empowering experience when they felt they had a say in an important project. It became theirs -- not just one more hand-me-down. The donors and volunteers got to know the children as individuals, which increased their commitment substantially. As a result, ASSOMA now has a policy that donations are only accepted if the donor has visited the school and is "approved by the children." "The human interaction is critical. When a potential donor promises little John warm clothes, we know he will come through because he has a personal commitment to John and feels responsible for his well-being in the winter." Maria's understanding and skillful use of the resources available in the community allowed her to build a successful, large-scale, self-sustaining organization. It has several different subprograms: a group of business companies is directly responsible for professional training and job placement; a community group works with families, trying to find jobs for the parents and eventually getting the children back home; a group of young businessmen set up a "big brother" mentorship program; several close supporters are getting their organizations to establish United Way-type campaigns with contributions deducted from the payroll. Maria is also counting on the professional community in Curitiba for the institutionalization of ASSOMA. For example, the retired president of the Bank of Brazil, after two years of progressive involvement with ASSOMA, has now become its executive director, allowing Maria time to expand her vision and spread her model throughout Parana. Brazil's citizen social change organizations are so new, given the long period of military prohibitors, that they do not know the techniques for mobilizing and successfully engaging volunteers. Most do not even have a concept that such possibilities exist. Maria's success is a dramatic, visible demonstration of both the techniques and the possibilities. She has been helping others in Parana learn from her experience and now plans, with a number of other Ashoka Fellows, to work nationally to help such citizen organizations learn how to build broad bases of citizen support volunteers, money, information, etc.