By Juan Forero
Sunday, November 8, 2009
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Like her neighbors in Rio's elegant Flamengo district, Yvonne Bezerra de Mello enjoys the trappings of wealth, from riding show horses to escaping on weekends to a mountain estate north of the city.
But during the week, the socialite with the perfectly coiffed hair runs a small school in one of Rio's sprawling, violent favelas, or slums -- the latest initiative in 30 years of activism that has won Bezerra de Mello worldwide acclaim.
The jolting contrast in her life parallels the disparity between rich and poor across the country. Bezerra de Mello, 62, attends dinner parties with Brazilian power brokers. She's also a mother hen to urchins shunned by much of Brazilian society.
Bezerra de Mello says that some in her social circle clearly don't approve.
"Many people say to me: 'You are crazy. You cannot raise favela kids.' And I say, 'Come and see, just see for yourself, that it's possible to do that,' " she said as she told her story -- in English, with an accent traceable to years spent studying languages in Sweden and Italy and sculpting in Paris. Now, she's married to a Rio hotel magnate.
She found her cause at 13, when she started reading to blind children. Bezerra de Mello says her mother not only raised her children by herself, on a civil servant's salary, after her husband left her, but she also helped orphans.
One objective of Bezerra de Mello's crusade is to change the perception of street children as pivetes, or boy thieves. "I want to change that part, that favela kids are bandits," she said. "But it's not an easy task."
Some Brazilians would rather not dwell on such things, now that their country of 190 million is in the midst of an impressive economic expansion that helped Rio win the 2016 Olympics. Under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former shoeshine boy, Brazil is riding a wave of optimism.
The tangible byproduct is that poverty is diminishing. But Bezerra de Mello sees little reason to celebrate. She says favela children still have limited options, with crack cocaine use spreading and the public schools a disaster.
Rio also remains one of the world's most violent cities, a fact brought home last month when drug traffickers shot down a police helicopter. "For many people," Bezerra de Mello said, "their lives aren't any better."
Her supporters say she has won the right to speak out after building the slum school, called Project Uere, from scratch. Project Uere -- the word means "Children of the Golden Rainbow" -- has been operating since policemen killed eight Rio street children outside a church in 1993.
Bezerra de Mello started her school with the 62 survivors of the massacre, at first under a downtown viaduct. The walls were plywood; the bridge formed the ceiling. Some city officials dismissed her efforts as showboating.
"I said to the authorities: 'I have 62 survivors. Where do you want me to go?' " she recalled.
Twelve years ago, Bezerra de Mello moved the school to a collection of small cinder-block houses in Mare, a swamp-turned-favela where more than 100,000 people live.
"My philosophy is, you go into a community, you don't change the community," Bezerra de Mello said. "You want the children to feel at home."
It's not ideal. The classrooms are small, the stairwells narrow. The lunchroom is so cramped that the children eat in shifts. Bezerra de Mello says she turns down applicants for lack of space.
Today, there are 430 students, many from broken families in which drugs and violence are the norm. But, at the school, those children have a computer room, a library, free meals.
Arriving one recent day, Bezerra de Mello was greeted with shouts of "Bom dia! Bom dia!" -- good morning! -- and kisses.
Once in the classroom, she got down to business, quizzing 17 pint-size children about what they did the night before. The children sang songs -- in French, Spanish, German. Then she tested them with a memory game.
The whole time, Bezerra de Mello hovered over her young charges, making eye contact, urging them on. What she calls her teaching "methodology" has drawn so much attention here that she has been hired to train teachers from some of the toughest Rio schools.
Instead of having students simply copy what teachers write on blackboards, Bezerra de Mello and her teachers move around the classroom. Their strategy is to engage students intensely but briefly -- for 15 or 20 minutes, tops -- before switching subjects. The goal is to keep them alert. The battle is against boredom.
"The brain is a muscle," she said. "You go to the gym and work your arm. You have to work the brain every day."
Bezerra de Mello says that when children first arrive, many can barely speak, having been used to being ordered around.
"At home they don't speak to each other," she said. "It's short: 'Go here, do that, pa, pa pa,' so the kids can't have a conversation, hold a conversation."
Brandon Santora da Silva, 6, lives blocks from the school in a single room that he shares with his mother and five siblings. There is no running water, no bathroom. He was resentful, even angry, when he arrived at the school, Bezerra de Mello says.
But Brandon's mother reports a change. "He's calmer now," said Líria Gomes Almeida, 30. "He's learned to write his own name."
Bezerra de Mello is not yet predicting success. She's a pragmatist who estimates that 360 of the children she has worked with over the years have died. Still, one former student is in medical school, and dozens have won scholarships to elite Rio schools.
They are the building blocks in her campaign.
"My goal is to diminish the intellectual gap between classes," she said. "You can give food, you can give clothes, okay. But the intellectual gap will be there, so no way of improving a country."
- Warrior of Light, New Yorker Films
- Projeto Uerê Blog (in Portuguese)
- A Haven in Rio's Slums by Kevin Rafferty, SEJUP News from Brazil, No. 337, 2/13/1999
- A última parada de Yvonne Bezerra de Mello por Ana Cláudia Guimarães, O Globo, 10/5/2008
- Yvonne's Kids; A Socialite in Brazil's Biggest City Finds That Taking In the Poorest Means Taking On the Richest, by Stephen Buckley, Washington Post, 6/11/2001 (preview; full text available for purchase)
- A fada boa da Nova Maré: Yvonne Bezerra de Mello cuida de 470 crianças com traumas da violência, po Lívia de Almeida, Veja Rio, 5/24/2006
- Entrevista: "Nem toda criança pobre é bandida", por Milly Lacombe, Marie Claire, 2/2009
- Fala Vizinho: Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, por Virgilio Rocha, Jornal Copacabana, Ed. 148, 7/29/2009
- Águas que Me Dançam
- As ovelhas desgarradas e seus algozes: A geracao perdida nas ruas
- Para Mim, Chega!
- Júlia e a Lagrima de Amor
Here is Part 1. Links to the other three parts are listed below. Includes heartbreaking footage of the street kids in Rio.