10/07/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2013

Saúde Criança: Snapshots from the Inside

By Leah L. Laxamana, Volunteer

I discovered Saúde Criança about a year ago and admired its work only from a distance in the U.S. I was impressed by how it is improving children's health and empowering families who oftentimes, were in desperate situations. Having the opportunity to go to Brazil and set foot in the Saúde Criança offices to witness its work and hear firsthand how families have been impacted by the organization has been very powerful. I heard mothers share their stories over a community therapy session, others through interviews, and also read several family accounts on Saúde Criança's blog.

While the positive effects of Saúde Criança's work on families was evident to me, I couldn't help but wonder about the experiences of its staff and volunteers. I connected with a number of them and what I gleaned from the conversations solidified that the core of the work is about transformation. Saúde Criança's program starts with giving very ill children the medical attention they need and providing basic food supplies to families, who eventually come out of the program with changed lives filled with hope and possibilities that once didn't exist. It doesn't stop there - the staff and volunteers themselves, whether they've been at Saúde Criança for a month or over a decade, have been transformed themselves and spoke enthusiastically of being reborn because of their service.

Transformation as a motivator. The staff consists of individuals who were prior volunteers, sponsors, or contract workers who have become inspired and grew to believe in the cause and decided to come on board. Some of them didn't find satisfaction in a previous career nor any sense in it beyond earning money to pay bills with; some even went out of retirement or refuse to retire because of loving the work at Saúde Criança so much. Volunteers and staff alike are motivated by filling a need, whatever that may look like, knowing that the ultimate result of their efforts is to improve the lives of families assisted. Some staff even felt called to shift their careers entirely and do further studies in social responsibility and other related courses, in order to be able to better support Saúde Criança's work. The organization enjoys a solid reputation and is distinguished for its transparency and holistic approach; it has been drawing people for different reasons, whether to learn, serve, or support.

It was evident to me that the investment in the time, resources, and effort of staff, volunteers, and all who support Saúde Criança is worth it as everyone reaps the benefits, not just the families assisted. One staff mentioned going through a particularly difficult personal situation in the past but her direct contact with the families of Saúde Criança created almost a parallel transition and transformation in her. An interesting thing emphasized by one volunteer is that one feels good about what is done for Saúde Criança not because the families are being given a favor; rather, as a result of the program, they change their way of thinking and acting, consequently raising their quality of life through their own efforts. Most of those I interviewed stressed that they value their work for the organization because it's ultimately for others; they are conduits so that others can do what is good for them. Some interviewees even expressed their experience as having fallen in love with the work and the ability to give others a chance to look at the world with hope.

Seeing concrete results. One volunteer commented that for families to be a part of Saúde Criança's program is like wining a prize because of the overall support they receive. However, critical to Saúde Criança's methodology is the learning instilled in the families; they are not given short-term remedies to their hardships but the ability to become self-sufficient. They may be initially dependent on the food supplies they receive from the program but later on are able to afford their own food and even housing. Most of the staff also elaborated on how much they value seeing tangible results from their work and witnessing the radical changes that the families undergo. The staff psychologist affirmed this, as according to the feedback she regularly receives from families, the biggest transformation they claim to have gone through has been internal. They go from a state of misery to dignity, where an increase in self-esteem and possibilities has become evident in their lives. One staff added that an amazing thing that also happens in the process is that at some point, some families even begin to help each other, having found their bearings and developed strong ties in the network.

The work is far from over. Even with Saúde Criança's successes over the past twenty years, much remains to be done especially in being able to spreading its methodology. The founder said in one interview that in a way she feels like Saúde Criança's methodology could be likened to discovering penicillin, an important cure whose use didn't become widespread until years later. Saúde Criança believes that it has an effective way of addressing the roots of poor health resulting from poverty, but it doesn't have the capacity to spread it worldwide to others who need it most.

Increasing Saúde Criança's exposure within Brazil has also been a big challenge; ironically, it has greater recognition internationally than locally. This is partly because of Brazilian's disillusion with nonprofit organizations in general, which have earned a negative reputation due to other entities that misused their funds. Nevertheless, the Saúde Criança staff and volunteers are not fazed, but are fully aware that a major priority for them is to increase awareness of the organization's work.

A sense of purpose. Not everyone is fortunate enough to claim loving their job and finding fulfillment in it every day, but this seems to be the recurring theme within the walls of Saúde Criança. When asked what the best part of their work is, the common thread of the responses from staff and volunteers was finding a sense of meaning and depth to their existence. Favorite moments include: families becoming proactive to pursue or practice the rights they learned from orientation; families who completed the program coming back or reaching out through social media to share how their lives have changed for the better; and kids recognizing staff members by name and always wanting to play with them. For some staff, just seeing kids smile and laugh for a change fills their hearts. One staff commented that there's no greater sense of accomplishment than when the light bulb switches on in the families and their perspectives change and they become driven to go beyond the confines of their previous world.

A volunteer shared that she is greatly impressed by the enthusiasm she has felt from people working at Saúde Criança and how they truly believe in what they do. This sentiment is reinforced by a staff member who said there is no feeling of competition among them, but unity and harmony even among those from different sectors and social classes; this is possible as everyone working towards the same purpose. One favorite highlight by staff is when the organization turned 20 years old- he said he felt happy Saúde Criança made it that far and maintained its philosophy the entire time; he added that it felt like the organization has become an adult.

My take. All I knew about Saúde Criança prior to coming to Brazil came from books, videos, and online sources. Having been here, it has been a privilege to witness what I learned come to life, embrace my senses, and penetrate the core of my being. All of these also validated that for my life's vocation, the responses I got from the interviews are the kind of experiences, feelings, and sense of pride I'd like to have. They were powerful reminders of what a life worth living and pursuing looks like. The conviction and persistence that the founder, Dr. Vera Cordeiro has had, sacrificing the comforts of her career, even raffling off bed sheets just to get her vision going have become the measure by which I hope to live my own life. I couldn't also help but imagine what it would look like to have Saúde Criança's methodology extend to the Philippines (where I grew up), Honduras (where I served for the Peace Corps), and every part of the world that needs it. While my stay in Brazil is brief, my support and conviction in Saúde Criança's work will remain until these aspirations of going global become a reality.

Help Saúde Criança in the Skoll Foundation's Social Entrepreneurs Challenge at crowdrise!

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