Sylvia Reyes

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2007
This description of Sylvia Reyes's work was prepared when Sylvia Reyes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


Sylvia Reyes, an educational psychologist, trains informal case workers to help parent’s recover from psychological damage, enabling them to protect and provide for their children, while providing them with the care they need for full development.

The New Idea

Sylvia is changing the future for child street workers. Many of these children live with violence and psychological abuse in their families, are out of school, and are vulnerable to dangerous behavior such as gang involvement and living on the streets. Sylvia focuses not only on the children, but also on their parents. Because their parents, many children are in downward spirals—parents past traumas may distort their relationships with their children; making them unable to provide basic physical or emotional care. Sylvia’s critical insight is the importance of the tenor of the family context as a powerful tool to solve the problems previously associated with extreme social exclusion. By helping families to become genuine spaces of care, the chances of children inevitably repeating the parenting they have experienced is interrupted—with this transformation in the family becoming a transformation for generations to come.

Sylvia ends entrenched cycles by using trained “key” workers to intervene with families, both children and parents. Parents become able to link their experiences of past traumas to their current parenting of their children. The workers then lead families through a process to recreate bonds and to learn to work together toward their future. By the time families’ graduate from her program, they have eliminated or greatly reduced violence, children are off the streets and integrated into mainstream schools, and for the first time parents have the capacity and wherewithal to support their children financially and make use of available local services such as healthcare.

By creating permanent change within families through an intensive but effective process, Sylvia offers a new perspective to government and citizen sector programs, with policies for dealing with vulnerable children, domestic violence, and family health. While Sylvia is replicating her methodology through citizen organizations in several countries, her goal is to shift policy and funding allocation so that long-term investment in the family becomes recognized as a primary component in the societal response to vulnerable children.

The Problem

According to the International Labor Organization and UNICEF, an estimated 218 million children between ages five and seventeen are engaged in child labor (excluding domestic labor) around the world. Of these, approximately 17.4 million are found in Latin America and the Caribbean, approximately 16 percent of children in the region. A 2004 study identified Ecuador (in 2000) as the country with the most child workers in all Latin America; with more than 34 percent of the population between ages ten and fourteen involved in child labor. These huge numbers of child workers are one indication of how many children in Ecuador, Latin America, and the world are vulnerable to violence and abuse on many different levels, including dangerous behavior such as drug abuse and prostitution, lack access to education, and futures with little opportunity. A telling example Sylvia cites is a nine-year-old girl she found dancing suggestively for men on daily bus routes.

A critical factor in pushing children to work on the streets and other vulnerable behaviors is a hostile family environment, particularly where there is physical and/or psychological abuse. Children’s development depends on receiving a basic level of care, protection from violence, and affection. The primary source for that care is from their parents, yet parents whose basic developmental needs were unmet are not able to meet those of their children. Sylvia believes parents in this dilemma behave more like demanding siblings than parents; often placing the burden to provide for the family on children, while doing little to earn an income or seek out the social services the family needs. Over 90 percent of the families Sylvia works with exhibit violence as part of their everyday lives—one family routinely treated one child as a scapegoat, and did not allow him to eat until everyone else had.

Rather than working to change family dynamics, which requires committing scarce resources to intensive front-end investment that can be hard to measure and daunting to undertake, many government and citizen sector programs offer street children and child laborers material assistance or provide skills training, education, and/or recreational opportunities. However, these methods do not address children’s fundamental need for interpersonal relations and emotional growth. Nor does this invest in solving the problems of families and damaged and vulnerable children. The long-term potential for children should be for them to be better able to parent their future children.

The Strategy

Sylvia’s methodology targets individual, group, and institutional levels. Sylvia trains key workers to heal children and parents through a time-intensive therapeutic approach and transform their ability to function together as a family. Sylvia piloted and perfected this model with street children in Guayaquil, Ecuador and has replicated her methodology through Juconi, her organization, with child laborers on banana plantations in Ecuador and through other citizen organizations in Brazil, South Africa, Afghanistan, and Mexico. Sylvia’s next challenge is to convince big investors and policymakers to invest in long-term results, by focusing on the family as a nexus of change.

Sylvia recruits non-professionals, usually with university degrees on the basis of their capacity for empathy, willingness to learn, and the strong “emotional stomach” to be able to cope with the distressing cases they will handle. She believes that non-professionals have the advantage of not needing to know all the answers and are more flexible when entering into the building of relationships. Sylvia teaches that the starting point for working with families is complete respect for them as human beings, no matter what they have done. Key workers commit to working with a family until it graduates—because leaving before then would mean another person has let them down. Throughout this commitment, workers receive emotional support in a formal structure from their colleagues at Juconi, to help them to cope with damaged families and to provide the self-reflection necessary to assist others.

Families are approached through the street children. Sylvia has come to see the advantage of demonstrating effectiveness with the most challenging: If it works with these families, it can be applied to others, and the learning has the greatest impact on refining the process. Using games, a worker selects the children who are difficult due to behavioral problems, drug abuse, etc. Juconi channels the rest to other organizations working with street children. Juconi pairs parents with their own parallel key worker; typically mothers first. They build a relationship of trust and often simply solve practical problems like accessing a healthcare system identification card. As the relationship progresses, parents come to trust the workers enough to share their past traumas.

When the individuals are ready, workers bring together the family members to recreate fractured ties. The first step is to create positive new memories such as trips to the beach. The family becomes ready to talk about itself, to bring out and confront painful memories. The turning point occurs as parents realize what they have been doing and can reassure their children that they will never behave that way again. Another turning point happens when the family is able to set goals together.

Juconi supports its families in many other ways. Initially, they provide financial aid, cushioning the transition as families take their breadwinning children off the streets. By the time they graduate from Juconi, they have developed and are sufficiently able to hold steady jobs. They also learn how to turn for help to available social services, such as local health clinics, where Juconi has worked with staff to meet their needs. Juconi also works on teachers’ skills and perspectives; to help them see the children as an opportunity, rather than a problem.

Families “graduate” from Juconi only when they are ready. The program is three years but families may stay for several more. In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of her model, Sylvia is careful to systematically measure results as part of her methodology. She provides clear, statistically accurate progress reports that show how families have significantly reduced violence within the first six months of working with Juconi. By the time families’ graduate, 93 percent of children are off the streets and 95 percent are integrated and learning in mainstream schools. Beyond the statistics, revealing conversations show the impact on families. After graduation, families become Juconi ambassadors, staying involved by teaching other mothers about nutrition, or by helping children with homework sessions. Juconi families in Guayaquil formed a community support network on their own. Sylvia intends to monitor families for ten years after graduation. To date, they have maintained their advances.

Sylvia has trained other citizen organizations in her methodology, and most importantly, her emphasis on the family. In Afghanistan, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa, Sylvia’s focus has been to partner organizations that use the process in their own settings. The municipality of Guayaquil has contracted Juconi to train organizations working in areas such as health, law, family violence, and children with special protection needs.

Sylvia knows she will not be able to spread her idea to other organizations if they cannot find funding for it. Much of Juconi’s work is supported by projects she sees as complementary, such as her work with schools. She has recently started to build a local funding base by creating partnerships with businesses that invest in a particular child. For systemic impact, Sylvia feels she must convince policymakers and big international donor institutions of the importance of reaching the family as a resource to solve serious social problems such as child street work.

Sylvia is also widening her network to include the academic world. Her attempt to create a shift in the field of working with children is a relatively new focus that she will continue to develop as she moves forward.

The Person

Because of her father’s U.S. Air Force job, Sylvia grew up moving from country to country. As a child, she felt an immediate identification with the street children she saw in Mexico, a feeling that it easily could have been her in their place. Her family raised her to give help to those who needed it—no questions asked.

Sylvia always knew she wanted to work with children, and studied to be an educational psychologist. She was drawn to working with socially marginalized people. During her training in England, she worked with low-income families whose children suffered from exclusion and racial discrimination. Later, when Sylvia worked as a psychologist, moving from school to school, she heard Sarah Thomas, the founder of Juconi in Mexico, speak about the program. Sarah’s message was about the importance of quality and a personalized approach for dealing with troubled children, and it resonated with Sylvia. She agreed to help Sarah establish Juconi in Ecuador.

In the beginning, Juconi’s methodology consisted of working with children in front of their parents. But in the course of her work, Sylvia had a couple of revelatory experiences that led her to take Juconi Ecuador in a different direction. She visited an extremely poor family that deeply troubled her—the four children were begging for their mother’s attention, but the mother could not meet their eyes, could not give them the care they needed. Another time she witnessed a mother cheat against her child in a board game, she needed so desperately to win. The cornerstones of Sylvia’s philosophy fell into place: Children want affection and care from their parents more than anyone else, and parents need a minimum level of emotional development to be able to provide that care. Sylvia now implements her new model as Juconi Ecuador’s Director of Methodology.