It was just after midnight on Thanksgiving morning when we arrived at Pronoei Santa Clara de Asís in Huaycan, Lima. Pronoeis are informal early primary schools for slum children sprinkled throughout Peru. My husband, Michael Pryce, and I came here to assess an education project HOPe (Helping Other People) has funded for the past five years. We wanted to meet and understand the needs of the migrant people living in Huaycan, a shantytown on the edge of Lima.
Our host was Sr. Rosa, a Peruvian Franciscan nun whom I met this past summer in the Bronx. During our stay, we met fragile slum children, like three-year-old Bernard, and Marisol devouring their ABCs and healthy breakfasts. We dined with young postulants exploring religious life and met mothers and fathers struggling daily to exist in a dusty settlement at the foot of the Andes.
A brief history of the region is that in the 1980s, mountain people fleeing political violence and economic devastation in the high Andes descended on the fringe of Lima. Shantytowns or free settlements like Huaycan were formed as poor people organized to scrape out a living. Today, over 180,000 inhabitants live in this barren, rocky suburb. Generally, a house isn't more than bricks stacked neatly together and covered with a corrugated tin-sheet roof. The further up the hill one lives, the worst the houses and the overall conditions are. However organized these third-world shanty-cites are, they are also melting pots were culture, politics and violence mix in haphazard ways. Their size overwhelms local and national governments; and that is where groups like Sr. Rosa and HOPe come in.
Although we were in the middle of sprawling slum, Sr. Rosa's three-story red-brick house had hot water, a refrigerator and a computer with an Internet connection, mostly funded by HOPe. Sr. Rosa lives here with a nun who is a psychologist and two postulates who teach classes. Pronoei Santa Clara de Asís' main focus is to support local children through education and nutrition and serves over 100 families daily. Because the need is so immense, Sr. Rosa only helps the poorest of the poor, like the children who have no father at home or perhaps an abused mother.
Many of children suffer from TB, malnutrition and other health aliments associated with extreme poverty. Five days a week, starting at 8 a.m., the Pronoei offers early learning classes for children aged two to five years. Many of the preschoolers wear checkered uniforms provided by Sr. Rosa and eagerly come to school in pristine condition full of pride. A typical morning starts with the children in a semi-circle doing mediation while soft Enya like music plays in the background. The children chant affirmations like, "I am intelligent," "I am loved" and "I am love."
They do art therapy and draw personal pictures of their family and home. Images of contentment, safety or chaos quickly emerge from the drawings. The resident therapist will later interpret the artwork and discuss it with the children and parents, if need be. In the afternoon, older children use the center as a safe place for homework help, and mothers arrive in the evening for workshops on health and to learn about the importance of education.
Besides HOPe's donations, the 49-year-old sister works two jobs to keep the doors opens. Coming from an upper-middle-class family in Lima, Sr. Rosa speaks five languages (English, Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish) and provides languages translation services. Occasionally, she gets requests to coordinate conferences. Her congregation, Mothers of the Holy Cross, which originated in Tanzania, offers moral support and some financial assistance as well.
Throughout the developing world, urbanization has created shantytowns that circle major cities for miles on end. Extreme poverty is the norm and opportunities are ripe to corrupt young minds. Thankfully, Sr. Rosa has no desire to slow down and is looking to expand. While there, we toured a rocky plot nearby, where she plans to build another house. This one will have a community kitchen where malnourished children will get healthy food daily and where mothers will come and learn cooking and a trade. The plot is owned by the community and the locals have agreed to hand the deed over to Sr. Rosa's Franciscan order.
The streets may have no names but Sr. Rosa and her teachers know all the children's names and the names of their parents up and down the hills of Huaycan. Together they are working hard to better their situations and pull themselves out of poverty -- and HOPe is honored to be involved.
HOPe -- Helping Other People -- was founded by members of the Kerry Association in Yonkers over 10 years ago. HOPe is a non-denominational humanitarian agency that helps the poor transcend poverty. HOPe is always looking for volunteers and for more information visit www.hope-charity.org.