Life Stories

Dr. Celia P.V., a physician in a small town hospital in Uruguay, came to know children who were especially disadvantaged and rejected.  Outside working hours, and with little means, she reached out to them.  In the following testimony, she describes how her commitment towards these children started and how hope grew from that special encounter. 

"These children are mainly street children.  Most of them do not go to school.  They hold within themselves a great deal of sadness because they are rejected.  They feel that there is no future for them.  I think what is hardest for them, even worse than not having a tomorrow to look forward to, is not being able to live the present. My aim is to make these children feel worthy of existing, and what we offer them is a place where they can get together as a stepping stone towards meeting other people.

Every Saturday afternoon we meet in one of the hospital's rooms which is no longer in use and which we try to improve little by little. There we work shining shoes.  We also go out to rake courtyards or sweep patios.  The children are paid for each job and each week the money is divided between them, leaving a percentage in the group's treasury for equipment, snacks and outings.

The children can use the meetingplace in a variety of ways, for example for work or for having a snack so that they can get to know one another better.  They also get to know the people in the community who now ask for their services and whom we ask to take the time to speak with the children so that they feel accepted.

How were these meetings initiated?

One day I approached four street children and I said to each of them "I have work to offer, does this interest you?" At first they did not answer me, but one day, one of them said to me: "So then, when will it be?" I then felt that I could go a step further and answered: "Saturday, 3.00 pm at the hospital" and I added, "there will be other children present."  When he asked me which ones and I told him some of the names, he commented: "You invited the poorest."  I answered: "I do not know if they are the poorest. Maybe they are. I invited them for the same reason I invited you, so that we can become friends."

What happens in these meetings?

The first meeting was attended by the four children I had invited.  By the third meeting, there were four additional children invited by the first group.

During this first meeting, we only shined shoes.  There were only two pairs of shoes to be done, this mean only one shoe per child.  The work took uas all afternoon because the children did not know how to do it and they had very limited skills.  It was necessary to repeat things over and over again.  Sometimes they spoke all at once, while at other times they remained silent..

Now we are more organised.  We always being by shining shoes, then we go out to do the work that we have been asked to do in peoples backyards and patios.

The children now take turns to be in charge of the materials.  This includes old toothbrushes which are used  to apply the polish.  We use balls that we have made ourselves from nylon for shining the shoes.  There are not enough brushes for every child to have his or her own.  However, it is not necessary in order to start something to have all top quality materials.  All you need is a little bit of creativity and ingenuity.  What is most important is that the work is well done.

Since they do no know how to count, during the meetings we count out loud how many of us are present.  We also count our tools so that the children get familiar with numbers.  After having cleaned the tools, we count them once again before putting them away.  Now not only each  child takes a turn at being in charge of the equipment but also of the money that has been earned.  So, from job to job and from meeting to meeting, they understand the organisation and they notice everything - if one of them tries to take over the others tell him or her that "everyone must have a turn."

Creating together a real meeting place

I made arrangements with Magdalena, the dentist, so that each Saturday she would give us shoes to shine and spend a little time talking to us.  The other day she came with her 10 year old son, Carlitos.  Little by little, the children put aside their work to go over and talk to him and some even went outside to play with him. It seems to me that this is another good way to use this meeting space.

Little by little, the children feel responsible for one another and for the trust others give them.  They themselves determine whose turn it will be to work in Maria's garden... Maria is one of the first people to have understood what we are trying to accomplish with these children.  This friend has given the children a permanent job.  Every Saturday they have to go to sweep her backyard and take out the rubbish.

I would also like to tell you something about their perception of their own individual identity.  When they get together to pray, they say: "Our father, here I am.." and each of them takes the time to say his or her name.  The aim of this is to reinforce their individuality by giving them the opportunity to name themselves and say who they are in front of people.  I have asked them to name themselves out loud because at first, they used to only whisper their names as if they were frightened.  Now they yell out their names!  One of these days, I am sure, they will say it normally.  Some of them have a real identity crisis since they are called different names or have several nicknames.  This is why I try to reaffirm their identity.

Even faced with the difficulties caused by extreme poverty, the children show that they want to learn.

At first, getting the children to arrive on time for the meetings was a problem, because they knew neither what day of the week it was nor how to tell the time.  As far as keeping time was concerned, they used to arrive at any hour.  In the beginning it was catastrophic, but not any more.  Now for them the week revolves around Saturday, which they know is the day of the meetings and the meetings start at 3:00 pm.  One day they all came at 4:00 pm.  So I said to one of them: "Please go and ask someone the time since I do not wear a watch."  When he returned, the child answered: "It is 4:00 pm."  I told all of them: "The meeting is at 3:00 pm. I hope you realise that it was an hour ago that we were supposed to have begun working. It seems to me that if we are not going to live up to our word, no one else will give us work, since people like to know that when they ask for a job to be done, it will be completed.." I do not know how they manage but from that day on, they have been on time. Sometimes, they even come to my house to look for me.

Our meetings have much improved.  The same children, who in the beginning were quiet and did not dare look at others, are now more sure of themselves and are acting more freely, they have more confidence in themselves.  They have even sung and danced and these are two important forms of expression.

Learning together ways of meeting one another

Making progress with other members of society takes a lot of time.  However, we have succeeded in convincing some people that when the children present them with a finished job, they should ask them to come in and let them cross the threshold of their home.  This is a fundamental gesture because these are usually called "outsiders", children to whom we hand out a piece of bread and old clothes without allowing them to come in because we fear that they might steal something.

Recently, one retired teacher has offered her services.  She is ready to work with them one day a week to help them with homework so they can learn to read and write.. For me, it is a real success to see that doors are actually starting to open up."

Celia P.V., Uruguay

Letter 28 - 1993