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A Chance to Help in Bahia, Brazil

 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.

by: Phillip
Wagner

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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