Clarissa is a GlobalGiving In-the-Field Volunteer. She is visiting GlobalGiving's projects in South America and writing postcards to donors to let them know how their donations are having an impact. Read other postcards from the field here: http://www.globalgiving.org/inthefield/.
“What does El Desafio mean to you?” I asked Gabi, one of the organization’s 35 children. His response was quick, yet sincere, “family”. This is a powerful statement for any child; but, for a marginalized child with shantytown roots, the depth of these sentiments is immeasurable. It is a feeling shared, however, by the kids, families, and community members affected by El Desafio’s work, and it is a testament to the organization’s tireless efforts to transform these individuals into agents of social change.
I had the pleasure of getting to know El Desafio’s phenomenal staff,talented children, and several of their dedicated community volunteers. Their mission is to improve the quality of life for children in Rosario, specifically those living in extreme poverty, by implementing programs to promote social inclusion, access to education, and personal development. The completely volunteer-based staff and teachers, some of whom grew up in the shantytowns, invest their time, money, and energy to ensure these children are afforded a better future. I saw firsthand the impact these efforts are having on the lives of the kids and the community as a whole.
To better understand the need for organization’s like El Desafio, several boys from the organization walked me through the streets of a shantytown, just 20 blocks from Rosario’s city center. The tone of life in “La Lata”, named for the tin roofs affixed to the makeshift homes, is oppressive. Dreams have little room to breathe and flourish. The homes, meant to be safe havens, are crumbling and are often nothing more than a brick façade, blocking trash and rubble from public view. The school boasts much the same characteristics; classrooms filled with outdated books and devoid of artwork. Frequent teacher strikes cause many children to enter secondary school lacking basic skills.
This scene is a stark contrast, however, to the room where El Desafio is housed, filled with new games, crafts, computers, and sports equipment for each child. Within these walls the kids feel safe, inspired, and valued. Here they are exposed to art, culture, music, and technology. They also learn "murga", an Argentine dance, which allows them to embrace their roots and express themselves freely. Each year the organization hosts an event, widely supported by the community, where the kids showcase their talents; for many, it’s the first time they feel a true sense of pride and ownership.
In addition to education, El Desafio exposes the kids to crucial life lessons. Consider that prior to joining the organization, the majority of the members lack interpersonal skills and the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up” is often answered by a blank stare. Yet, through the examples set by the staff, the children learn about responsibility, teamwork, communicating with their peers, and the importance of giving back to the community. It’s these tools that cause kids like Luciano to invest in his future by starting his first job, and to work towards becoming an El Desafio staff member in order to pay forward the opportunities provided to him.
The staff’s unwavering commitment reaches far beyond the classroom, however, as they provide counseling and support to families of El Desafio members as well. Realizing the organization’s impact, parents utilize them as strong allies to keep their kids safe and in school, and also look to them for guidance regarding personal matters. During my visit, staff even donated blood to help a member’s mother currently battling cancer under the most unthinkable conditions; just one example of heir generosity among I witnessed!
Before leaving, I took part in one of El Desafio’s many community collaborations. Working with local artists, the kids painted a mural, transforming the classroom into a whimsical scene of colored mountains and skateboarding dinosaurs. I watched the kids laugh while channeling their inner artists, and witnessed the staff look on as if proud parents. In moments like these, the mutual respect, understanding, and adoration within the group is evident. As Mario, El Desafio’s founder, told me, “We learn as much from them as they learn from us. Their ability to remain positive and happy despite the life that’s been handed to them is an inspiration and it helps us to keep things in perspective”.
With warm hugs and kind words, we finally parted ways. I leave El Desafio with fond memories of the dedicated staff and the kid’s inspiring spirit. I can’t say it enough - this is an organization worth following and certainly worth investing in!