Víctor Hugo Palliaroli invented a methodology to develop the personalities and individuality of Mexico's poor working children and help them to grow into healthy citizens.
The New Idea
Among the children who work on the streets of Mexico's burgeoning cities, it was Víctor Hugo Palliaroli who began to address the developmental consequences of poverty. In addition to the economic hardships which force them to work in order to survive while other children are in school, Víctor focused on the social starvation which grows out of their living conditions. His commitment to help them become creative and positive social beings reflects his concept of citizenship: that a boy or girl cannot grow up to function as a participating member of a democratic society without being able to understand his or her situation and take part actively in solving its problems. As he says, his goal was "to produce an active social subject in every child we work with."
Set within a health-oriented citizens' organization, Víctor's approach to helping urban working kids is distinctive because of his orientation to the core issue of nurturing personalities and the methodology he created to do that. Unlike government programs that concentrate on job training or literacy, Víctor developed an integrated model that attends not only to the basic material needs of the children but includes their emotional, psychological and social spheres as well. Into every activity, whatever its focus–work, culture, sports–Víctor builds individual psychological oversight for each child.
According to the most recent census and UNICEF data, out of a total population of about 90 million inhabitants in Mexico, 43 million live in poverty; close to half of the population is under eighteen years of age. A large proportion of the poor in Mexico, and one-fifth of the working population, are under eighteen years of age.
The conditions of many working youngsters' lives fall far short of what they need to meet their needs for social development, and predispose them to a harsh odyssey of social and personal problems. Their family lives often are marked by violence and emotional deprivation due to the absence of one or both parents; malnutrition is commonplace. As Víctor has pointed out, they commonly work for survival in the informal sector of the economy, mainly selling things–uncreative, alienating jobs that their parents believe can and should be done by their children: "Attending a street stand hinders the creativity and individual development of the child because he or she cannot move or have any initiative, has to be on guard at all times and is vulnerable to the assault of all sorts of unsavory characters." They fall far behind or drop out of school; if they are indigenous and don't speak Spanish, they may have scarcely any education at all. They typically establish aggressive relationships with others and are prone to develop drug addictions.
Government-sponsored remedial programs for working children have failed to integrate consideration of their developmental needs. Most provide training for adult jobs or recreational activities that do not address their deeper personal needs and indeed undermine them. The conventional helping model is paternalistic and assistance-oriented, which actually prevents the working children from becoming individuals who can actively face the circumstances around them.
To fulfill his goal of changing the living conditions of working children, Víctor has implemented a threefold strategy, which includes: (1) direct work with these children through an integrated care program; (2) preventive work among the population whom he sees as the producers of future working children–mothers from low-income neighborhoods; and (3) relationships with other institutions to disseminate his work and promote research on the subject of working children.
For his direct work with children, Víctor has organized a team coordinated by street educators and based at Participative Processes, a community health center that offers assistance to 80 children from seven neighborhoods. The team forms individual diagnoses and specific working strategies for each child. Volunteer doctors provide on-site free medical and dental services. The street teachers make house calls and go visit children's working places to gather all the information available regarding their situations. All team members are trained to record their observations in a personal file, which they regularly review together. The personalized working strategies comprise the areas of education, health, psychological support, job training, recreation and culture. Each child has a mentor from the staff and participates in the different programs implemented by Participative Processes at his or her own pace, gradually growing more active and committed to their own development. The families and other adults who have contact with working children are recruited to participate.
Víctor's work has a strong preventive component. In coordination with a private university, he has implemented a graduate course through which the mothers from low-income neighborhoods come to community-based educational centers to receive training in such subjects as child development and sensory stimulation. Víctor is convinced that early intervention is the only way to prevent potential working children from following a destructive path when they come face to face with their unfavorable social environment. The mothers-as-educators, thanks to the training they receive, are strengthened to help their children build the internal strength as well as the emotional stability and mental skills they need to survive in the future. Two groups of mothers, from ten neighborhood centers, have already completed their training.
Working in coordination with private institutions and citizens' groups, Víctor has implemented and directed research programs in order to test his methodology. He actively disseminates his ideas among a wide range of organizations that address the problems of children, and his group at Participative Processes has joined the International Movement of Working Children and Teenagers. In partnership with the Hispanic American University, he is developing a graduate course to train street educators in the methodology he has developed for working children.
Víctor was born in Argentina to immigrant parents who did not have access to any formal education. His father worked as a truck driver and his mother sold cleaning supplies; Víctor used help her tend the little store during the afternoons. He, too, was a working child, although he remembers his situation as very different from that of most of the working children he assists today. He never suffered the severe family deprivations that most of these children endure; they come from more abandoned, unprotected sectors of society, and their living conditions border on misery. But because of his own background, Víctor believes he can truly understand the problems faced by working children.
As a teenager in high school, Víctor worked in a slum area teaching children how to read and write. It was there that he first discovered that the yearning for learning and personal improvement is not defined by the family economic conditions but is closely related to the individual child's need for growth.
With many sacrifices, his parents helped support in his college studies, realizing that this would open new opportunities for their son. When he was 22 years old he decided to make a tour of the different Latin American countries with a friend. Throughout this long journey, during which he worked with children and youngsters and became acquainted with social health issues, he discovered his vocation for social issues. Once back home, he changed his college major from economics to sociology, which he studied in Mexico, the country where he had decided to live. His main goal as a student was to link the problems faced by children to the psycho-social context.
Víctor was the first in his family to earn a college degree. This helped him become self-sufficient and enabled him to fulfill his dream of promoting the self-esteem and self-confidence of others so that they can overcome circumstances even worse than his.