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Brazzil - Volunteering - July 2004

A Chance to Help in Bahia, Brazil

Thinking about volunteering in Brazil? You should consider
Bahia's AEC-TEA. They are in charming Capim Grosso. There are
no white sand beaches or snow-capped mountains within hailing
distance. But you'll find there a rustic, poor community of
exceptionally hospitable people living in the semi-arid caatinga.

Phillip Wagner


Picture Fabio Ramos is a remarkably soft-spoken twenty-something Bahia-born activist with undeniably Brazilian features, but a temperament that belies his age. He projects none of the angst evident in many young Brazilians and, in fact, exhibits about as much emotion as Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame.

Fabio expresses emotion almost exclusively through the compassion of his actions, which have included co-founding the Associação Educativo-Cultural Tarcília Evangelista de Andrade, or AEC-TEA, in Capim Grosso, Bahia, Brazil.

As a high school student in 1993, Fabio helped organize student-teacher meetings to establish community service goals, like collecting food for the hungry, clothes and toys for children, etc.

Those meetings established the foundation for the "association" now known as AEC-TEA, affectionately called "ach-tay-uh" in the community. Fabio's inspiration then was simply the need to organize students to participate in constructive activities. "It's a small town" he said, "we don't have a lot of things to do here, and our idea was to have some constructive activities".

Fabio emphasized that the idea was not his alone. "We had a group of classmates," he said. "We were talking and decided to organize something". But the weight of Fabio's leadership at that time, so evident today, is suggested by the fact that the association became inactive in his absence.

Fabio left for Salvador in 1994 to prepare for Brazil's national college entrance exam, the vestibular, for which competition is severe. Fabio was the only member of his class to take it and he passed, allowing him to enter university full-time in 1995.

The Taizé Factor

While in Salvador, Fabio began working with an ecumenical organization called Taizé, which clearly left its imprint on him. Taizé is a small town in France where, at about Fabio's current age, an invalid from Switzerland, suffering from tuberculosis, arrived in 1940.

"Brother Roger", as he became known, purchased an abandoned home with the help of a loan and began sheltering war refugees, including Jews. Access to resources, including water, was problematical, as is the case in present-day Capim Grosso.

Brother Roger prayed discretely in order to avoid making Jews or agnostics feel ill-at-ease. He fled Taizé in 1942, but returned in 1944 with other "brothers". German prisoners of war were received with the same openness as war orphans, Jews and other refugees. The community coalesced from a mix of self reliant Protestants and Catholics who refused to accept gifts or donations for personal gain.

Eventually Taizé began reaching out to young people in other countries, encouraging them to consider and discuss how to improve the world. Fabio attended two meetings in Alagoinhas, near Salvador, and then traveled to interior São Paulo state, where he spent four months as a volunteer.

Not long after his return, Fabio was invited by Taizé to visit France, which he did from January through June of 2001. Later that year, he helped organize a meeting of 15,000 young people in Salvador while completing general administration studies at the university. Upon graduation Fabio returned to visit Capim Grosso and remained.

Rekindling the Association

Fabio began teaching mornings, afternoons and evenings at public schools and one private community school known as the Association for Community Education in Capim Grosso, or ACEC. Although he'd received a certificate to teach general administration courses while pursuing his degree, Fabio is able to teach almost anything in Capim Grosso.

"We don't have teachers," he explained. "Anyone arriving here with a university degree can teach anything. The degree doesn't matter provided you prepare yourself and know the subject. That's really all that matters".

Throughout 2002, while teaching, Fabio was thinking about how to better organize the community. There are, as there always have been, significant needs in Capim Grosso.

"I was thinking about how to get someone here to help better prepare our teachers. When funds are available for teachers, they're only available to pay the teachers, not to pay for preparing them. And the teachers can't go to someplace like Salvador to receive more training because they're so needed here. We can't afford to let them go for something like that".

In October and November of 2002, Fabio made a firm decision to stay in Capim Grosso, but was determined to do something about the schools in the community. He began by registering AEC-TEA with Idealist.com and by contacting his old classmates to rekindle the original association.

Most responded to say they would help. "So we started to find a place to work, to find material and prepare (legal) papers. We had to register the association as an NGO".

These former high school classmates form an advisory board, but none other than Fabio is dedicated to the day-to-day administration of AEC-TEA.

First International Volunteers

In February or March of 2003, just after Carnaval, Fabio and a small delegation traveled to Salvador to receive AEC-TEA's first international volunteers, courtesy of Idealist.org. Two were from the United States and one from Colombia.

Volunteers initially stayed at Fabio's house or were placed with families. The AEC-TEA "facility" was then only a garage where local English teachers could receive additional preparation.

"At that time," said Fabio, "we mostly didn't have any English teachers who could speak English. They only spoke Portuguese but they were teaching English". AEC-TEA initially focused on securing volunteers capable of enhancing instruction in English and art.

AEC-TEA placed two volunteers in public schools but quickly concluded they couldn't function effectively there and pulled them out. The politics of the environment was challenging. And, although these first volunteers did speak Portuguese, they tried to rely too heavily on English in the classroom, which students weren't used to.

The two factors, together, were too much too early for the fledgling organization to manage. Meanwhile, the situation at the private ACEC community school was becoming increasingly desperate.

Problems at ACEC

Attendance was dropping at ACEC as the result of a campaign by the mayor, a member of the same political party as all-powerful Bahia senator Antonio Carlos Magalhães (ACM). A year-long simmering tension between ACEC and the mayor, who perceived educators there as being too sympathetic to Lula's Workers Party, had come to a boil.

In 2003, the mayor opened a competing school and sent people door-to-door encouraging residents to withdraw their children from ACEC. He let city workers and local businessmen know that keeping their children in ACEC would have consequences. Already declining enrolment fell precipitously, slashing revenues just when they were most needed.

ACEC was built in 1970 as part of a USAID program to construct community schools throughout Brazil. USAID funded the construction, which the communities were obliged to repay over an extended period.

ACEC, with input from Fabio, had previously decided to secure its independence from indebtedness so the school could more aggressively pursue improvements.

ACEC took drastic measures to pay down the debt. Everyone and every program did without. Teachers weren't paid at all for three months and everyone was asked to dig a little deeper, to participate in every kind of initiative to raise or find or free up funds to pay-off the debt.

Their initiative began before their open falling-out with the mayor and the mayor himself donated a truck that was sold to pay off part of the debt.

Next Steps for ACEC

The ACEC building infrastructure was, and is, crumbling. Everything needs to be repainted, the roof is sagging and, with no security wall, ACEC has been vandalized repeatedly. The school's only television, VCR and stereo have been taken.

So now, with enrolment falling by 50 percent in a year, ACEC has been unable to capitalize at all on its newly-won financial independence. In fact, the situation is worse than ever.

Early this year Fabio approached the ACEC board with the idea of constructing a security wall funded by proceeds from advertising that would appear on the wall. AEC-TEA was still establishing its credibility in the community and the board was leery.

But Maria da Paixão, the school's administrator, had been working directly with volunteers from AEC-TEA. She trusted Fabio and the association. She also more keenly felt the pain of the school's needs, so she agreed to the idea. Fabio and the ACEC board have since agreed for the need to sell an adjacent school property intended for athletic activity.

AEC-TEA wants to expand assistance to ACEC by providing Spanish, biology, writing and sign language instruction in addition to English and art. One volunteer taught sign language for AEC-TEA from May of 2003 to May of 2004, but had to leave.

Sign language must be taught by a Brazilian because that individual must be available throughout the year and must be able to help students use sign-language in their study of all subjects. There are also differences between the sign language of Brazil and that of the U.S. or England for example.

It's worth noting that AEC-TEA has been able to find a way to serve the public schools through its "Project Values", which employs local volunteers to deliver classes on family values and social life supported by international volunteers.

The Volunteer Experience

AEC-TEA is putting together an excellent website, but communicating the charm of Capim Grosso, and it is charming, is a challenge. There are no white sand beaches or snow-capped mountains within hailing distance.

What visitors will find in Capim Grosso though is a rustic, poor community of exceptionally hospitable people whose culture and activities represent life in the semi-arid caatinga.

And Capim Grosso is much safer and much less expensive than larger urban communities. I was never aware, during my brief stay there, of anyone feeling concern about walking alone at night.

I was told that crime centers on vandalism of unprotected public facilities and transient activities related to 1) the fact that marijuana grown in distant Juazeiro passes through Capim Grosso on its way to Salvador and 2) cars stolen in São Paulo are transported to, and sold in, interior Bahia.

AEC-TEA volunteers can expect to participate in the daily life that would take place in any "community of volunteers". They'll shop at the local Monday open-air market, buy bread from a local bakery, cook meals and do dishes, care for the compound garden, do laundry and so on … all in addition to their focused efforts to add value within the framework of AEC-TEA serving Capim Grosso. Volunteers today are housed at the AEC-TEA compound.

Volunteers have also become a rich source of sound advice. Based on volunteer input AEC-TEA is establishing a network of local community service organizations. Fabio was surprised to discover how little each organization understood about what the others were doing.

The AEC-TEA Compound

Last year for a time, as the number of volunteers grew and as it became more difficult to find home-hosts, AEC-TEA rented a house close to the association. The rent was covered by monthly donations from association members, Fabio's old high-school classmates.

But association membership has dwindled so incoming funds—only about 3 reais ($1 U.S.) per person per month—is negligible. The current site was an abandoned trade school owned by ACACG, the Association for Community Assistance of Capim Grosso.

ACACG has a second facility, which is now being used as a daycare center, but funding for the trade school evaporated when the current mayor was elected because ACACG's director was the previous mayor's wife.

The daycare center director, a participant in AEC-TEA meetings, arranged last December for AEC-TEA to be offered use of the building because, vacant, it was being vandalized. AEC-TEA worked through January and February to dress it up.

"In fact," says Sacia Stiles, a U.S. volunteer who has stayed on at AEC-TEA, "the new volunteers moved in at the end of January and took part in the (refurbishing) process".

Although they could certainly use the help, and would probably accept it, AEC-TEA only ever asks for donations for programs they assist. "We don't need really a lot of money" said Fabio. But the reality is that funds are needed for AEC-TEA.

In particular, the association badly needs new computer hardware and software, additional beds and other furniture for volunteers, a new sofa or two would be nice, a canopy is needed over the dining area, which is out-of-doors, and only one of two bathrooms is functional for the staff, volunteers, students, meeting attendees and other visitors to the compound.

A Few Words from Fabio

When asked if he had a few words for potential volunteers Fabio said, "I'd like them to come here open to discover the culture. I'd like them to be attentive and try to discover and not come saying only that I've come to do this and this and this. But to come and listen to the community and observe first, and then start helping."

Fabio emphasized that although any offer to volunteer will be considered, AEC-TEA is especially interested in long-term volunteers. "After only one month they're confronting the culture," he said.

"They don't have time to get to know the people, and they can't understand the situation. When people come to stay here longer, for example six-months or a year, then after two or three months time they have a different point of view and the experience becomes more positive for them and also for the community".

Potential AEC-TEA volunteers and benefactors can find a link to the AEC-TEA website, which provides excellent information about the program, in the Social Programs gallery of this site.

For more information visit the AEC-TEA website at http://www.aec-tea.org.

Phillip Wagner is a frequent contributor to Brazzil magazine. He is the founder of The Rhythm of Hope in Brazil, which promotes and encourages support for social programs in Brazil, in addition to promoting a better general understanding of Brazil and Brazilian culture.

Phillip is a volunteer Campaign Associate for Oakland, California based Nourish the New Brazil, which supports President Lula's national zero hunger initiative, and a Volunteer Outreach Associate for Colorado Based Socially Conscious Coffee, which serves the unmet needs of coffee workers on 51 farms in northeastern Brazil.

He is also the volunteer Bahia Program Development Director for the Rio based Iko Poran volunteer placement organization and a member of the advisory board for the Didá project. Phillip could use your support and encourages you to visit The Rhythm of Hope in Brazil website at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm

He can be reached at pwagner@iei.net.

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