Carlos Roberto dos Santos is a soldier who saw how Brazil's enormous military establishment could be mobilized to help millions of homeless street children.
When Carlos was just nine months old, his mother died. His father, unable to raise all four children, asked a neighborhood woman to take and raise Carlos. But the woman, who had seven children of her own, turned Carlos over to FUNABEM. Carlos spent his entire childhood, from the age of one to sixteen, in FUNABEM. During that time he was shuffled around to twelve different orphanages in three Brazilian states."I tried to escape a lot," Carlos recalls. "And when I was nine years old, I managed to escape, and I lived for one and a half years as a street kid in Copacabana, mostly at the Rio train station. I didn't get involved in serious crime, but I had to pick a few pockets to get money for food."Juvenile authorities eventually picked him up and returned him to FUNABEM, where he did an about?face and became an exemplary student. Although he finished his studies, he discovered upon graduating that "if you've spent any time in FUNABEM, nobody will hire you. They think you're a delinquent."He enlisted in the air force and in 1980 was made a sergeant. "I figured, if I started out with so many problems and could go so far, I should be able to do something for disadvantaged kids who have no hope but FUNABEM or the street."In 1980 Carlos and another Air Force officer began giving speeches in the community about what he calls the "other side" of the FUNABEM problem. "People have the impression that all kids from FUNABEM are criminals, that they'll never come to any good," Carlos says. "I wanted to show the other side of the picture, to show that these kids are energetic, they like to participate in projects, they love sports, they are normal adolescents. So, why not give them a chance at a real job?" From these modest beginnings, Carlos Roberto Dos Santos launched the Pro Menor Program.
Despite the fact that Brazil will probably never fight a war, and now has a civilian government firmly in control, it still has a very large military establishment with tens of thousands of underutilized men in bases throughout the country. Many of these bases are in areas where there are concentrations of poverty, and street children abound. Carlos's simple idea is to use the bases and their facilities, as well as volunteer military personnel, to provide the children with meals, education, organized sporting activities, counseling, and vocational training. Ultimately, Carlos's Pro Menor program will help the children to find jobs and become productive members of society. It also is helping the soldiers and their families to move beyond negative stereotypes and put the issue of street children on the forefront of their minds.
The problem is poverty. And one of its most brutal manifestations is the millions of street children, some entirely abandoned, that live on the streets and survive by shining shoes, running errands, begging, prostitution, stealing, or selling drugs. Not only do they make the streets unsafe, the children often suffer from malnutrition, disease, the hostility of most adults, and violence. The survivors enter adulthood with little training, education, or means of supporting themselves other than by what they have learned in the street.It is a vicious circle. Brazil is poor and cannot designate adequate resources to combating the problem. The chief governmental institution that attempts to cope with street children is FUNABEM, which deals with orphans, disadvantaged, and delinquent children. Its resources, however, are limited. And children that have been interned at FUNABEM and completed their education often find that the stigma of having been a FUNABEM kid stays with them for the rest of their lives and makes it difficult even to find jobs.Pro Menor aims to mobilize enormous underutilized resources that already exist throughout the country and tap into trained and willing volunteers. It attracts the children and keeps them in the program because of the sense of participation it provides. The meals and organized sports are important, but so is the sense of belonging to something powerful and respected, the discipline and sense of purpose, and above all, the feeling that its members can be somebody. Finally, the Pro Menor graduate is helped to find a job, no stigma attached.
The first crucial step Carlos made was persuading his military commander at the Galeao Air Force Base in Rio to allow him to use the base and its resources to pilot the Pro Menor program. Once the program was running successfully and attracting growing numbers of children and volunteers, it created its own momentum. Government officials showed interest and the effort gained considerable local attention. Carlos took Pro Menor to the minister of Brazil's Aeronautics Ministry, who, persuaded of its importance, authorized the replication of similar programs in bases throughout the country.Today, building upon successful programs in six units in six different cities (each with an average of 170 children between the ages of ten and seventeen), Carlos has stepped up his efforts to expand the program to other branches of the armed forces. He has also begun to work with Rio's police and the Federal University of Rio, which have both the physical resources and volunteers to set up successful Pro Menor programs. Enlisting the police is an especially important initiative, since a successful program can provide a different way for police to deal with street children, while also improving the public's perception of the police.Clearly, counting the armed forces, police, and universities, the potential for replication is enormous. These institutions are found everywhere throughout the country, and they have both the physical resources and potential volunteers to ensure successful programs.That is the institutional strategy. The other part of the equation involves getting children voluntarily to come to Pro Menor and stay with the program. Carlos cites the example of Sergio Bernardes, a street kid who lived on the sidewalk outside Rio's train station where Carlos himself used to hang out. A poor black child with no family, illiterate, and plagued by a bad stutter, Sergio was approached by volunteers from a church organization that works with street children. They convinced him to attend Carlos's day program. No one knows whether it was the promise of a couple of decent meals a day or the chance to learn some marketable skills or maybe the sports that convinced Sergio to give it a try. But he spent two years at the air force base, learning basic reading and carpentry skills. Today, because of this experience, he works as an apprentice carpenter at a Rio construction company and has saved enough money to buy a small shack in a downtown favela. He earns two minimum salaries, or around $150 a month, and continues studying. "Sergio is eighteen years old now, and has become completely integrated into society," Carlos says with justifiable pride.