In Brazil, as in many other countries in the developing world, the public has come to regard street children as an intractable problem for which there can be little remedy. By focusing on the children’s frequently overlooked psychological and emotional needs, Auro Lescher is helping children to escape the streets.
The New Idea
Auro uses a combination of creative activities, education, and relationship-building to restore street children’s confidence in themselves and their futures. Working with a team of carefully trained “therapeutic educators,” he helps the children to develop new and strengthened affective relationships, rekindling their “desire to desire” and filling the emotional voids once occupied by drugs and street violence. The counselors—recruited from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels—are responsible for running an array of activities, including graffiti workshops and other programs designed to help the children develop employable skills. Launched in 2000, Project Quixote supports children from the moment they are first encountered on the streets to the point at which they can reunite with their families or re-enter mainstream society. The Project maintains a broad support network that includes clinical and social services and provides direct outreach to the child’s family and community to prevent him/her from returning to the street. Thanks to a variety of partnerships and a commitment to collaborating with other leaders in the field, Auro has trained 2,500 people to understand and adopt the program’s methodology, and has impacted the lives of nearly 10,000 people, including children, adolescents, and their families. Auro is working to expand Project Quixote into five other states in Brazil from its beginnings in Sao Paulo.
In the last few decades, huge numbers of people have flooded into Brazil’s major urban centers in search of jobs, leaving their long-time communities behind to settle in the outskirts of the city. Sao Paulo alone has an estimated 8 million people living in its urban periphery, the vast majority of whom lack access to educational, health, and leisure resources. The absence of traditional neighborhood and familial support has had a particularly damaging impact on children. As their homes may be places of abuse, violence, and emotional and economic deprivation, children living in these conditions often turn to the streets in search of survival and the positive relationships that are often missing in the urban slums. When they break or suspend ties with their families and homes in favor of the city center, they become in a certain sense “refugees”—abruptly abandoning their roots.
Recent studies in Sao Paulo have found that of the roughly 5,000 children and adolescents who spend their time on the streets during the day, 1,000 sleep on the streets at night. Beyond these figures, thousands of other children living on the societal fringe are at-risk. Once on the streets, children find themselves in a culture of violence, where robbery and prostitution are commonplace. They develop a deep mistrust of those outside their peer networks, and often turn to drugs, both to fit in and as a form of self-medication. Indeed, the Brazilian Centre of Information on Psychotropic Drugs (CEBRID) found that 88.6 percent of street children are users of psychoactive substances.
The government’s response is typically to institutionalize the children, treating the problem in only criminal and medical terms. The profound psychological dependency created by cocaine differs considerably from the physical drug addictions caused by other drugs. Failing to take into account both the medical and social realities on the street, the government’s half-hearted response often ends with children returning to their old habits upon release.
Moreover, as this problem has gone on largely unabated over the last many years, the general public has grown increasingly apathetic towards these children. There exists a sense of resignation amongst the public over the issue, as street children have been allowed to become part of the natural cityscape. Even most related citizen organizations address the problem only topically, focusing on immediate needs like food and clothing. Such interventions largely ignore the social causes at work, and fail to break the cycle that drives children to live and return to the streets.
The grandson of Jewish refugees during World War II, Auro began to note the similarities between his grandparents’ situation and the challenges faced by the street children he counseled: The loss of place and familiar support systems, the search for a new identity, and the almost complete absence of care. He thus adopted the concept of street children as “urban refugees” challenging the historical assumptions that portray them as delinquent drug addicts. This understanding has had a profound influence on the work of Project Quixote. Auro grounds his efforts on the premise that street children are in a state of transit, and he has organized his interventions in a phased approach to provide them with new and strengthened affective relationships, to give them a new chance at childhood.
Auro begins with what he calls a “Welcome” phase, in which trained therapists slowly build up bonds with the children; this process may take up to three months. As one of the first in Brazil to realize that drug addiction is a social issue rather than a medical one, Auro sought to draw on a variety of competencies and to embed this recognition across multiple fields. His team of twelve “therapeutic educators” thus includes teachers, health workers, social workers, and others with a commitment to providing children with the emotional support they lack on the streets. These figures remain central throughout every phase of the program, providing kids with a blend of education, social, and clinical support, and offering for many their first truly supportive relationship.
Auro first sends his team into the streets with backpacks, carrying crayons and other games to engage children in conversation. After earning a child’s trust, the educator takes them through a thorough interview, exploring their story to develop a personalized plan of care. Because kids often use drugs as a way to suppress their emotional state, a key objective is to awaken each child’s “desire to desire.” The children are invited to participate in arts and educational workshops, providing them with a creative outlet to gain confidence and ignite their passions.
Auro has developed a residential center in downtown Sao Paulo to house children during the second phase. While living in the “castle for adventures,” the children engage in a variety of both creative and academic workshops, including artistic graffiti and hip-hop, as well as IT skills and gastronomy. Medical and psychological assistance is also available to those children who require it, particularly those suffering from more serious drug-related problems. Housing up to thirty children ranging from infants to 19-year-olds, the home is meant to provide the children with a safe space to learn and thrive.
Meanwhile, Auro works to strengthen the ties between the children and their families and former social institutions. Believing a child is best cared for in the home, he recognizes that successful reintegration depends on tackling the problems that led the child to initially leave home. In close concert with other COs and government services, Auro and his team of therapists provide services to the children’s families, including counseling, skills training, and treatment programs for parents suffering from drug and alcohol abuse problems. In the case of ten-year-old Wesley, a boy who had spent years living on the streets of Sao Paulo, Project Quixote worked carefully to build up the support networks already in place in his community. The team arranged a partnership between another nearby CO and employees of a state health care program to provide both him and his father with treatment for alcoholism. Having learned in the course of interviewing the family that Wesley’s father was a stonecutter by training, Project Quixote bought him a machine to enable him to return to work. Through these and related interventions, Auro slowly works to restore the family’s sense of dignity.
This lays the groundwork for the final reintegration phase, in which the children return home or re-enter mainstream society. Through regular visits, the therapeutic educators and support staff provide constant support to each family and community. In cases in which a child cannot return home, Auro is equally determined that they receive on-going care and support. To this end, he started an Education for Work Program, which partners with large companies to provide the rehabilitated young people with dignified employment, and is currently piloting a microcredit program with ten families in Project Quixote.
Auro is especially interested in channeling kids’ creative abilities into job opportunities. He won the Ashoka-McKinsey Prize in 2001 for setting up the Quixote Spray Art Agency, matching children with leading graffiti artists, and training them to provide graffiti art services to publicity companies. Together with Alex Atala, a world-renowned Brazilian chef, Auro is in talks to create a branded soda that will feature Amazonian fruit and flavors. By working to put a face to the entire production and distribution chain, the business venture will offer employment opportunities to youth both in Sao Paulo and elsewhere in the country through its sales and distribution program.
Auro employs a unique mix of teaching and research to spread his work to other parts of the country. He has created a formal methodology to train a growing cohort of educators who share a strong sense of empathy rather than a particular background. As opposed to other programs that rely on technology and clinical expertise, Auro’s reliance on well-trained educators means that the support system can be implemented almost anywhere. In addition, Auro has translated the insights and practices of Project Quixote into a course at the Federal University of Sao Paulo in order to shape psychiatrists’ worldview before they enter the field. In this way, he hopes to ultimately change the way they and other officials view and care for street children. A second key piece of his expansion strategy is to use field research to demonstrate the project’s efficacy, to influence public policy, and to persuade those already involved in similar efforts that his model of holistic care can make a profound difference in the lives of street children. Already, Auro’s findings and experience have been in part responsible for changes in the government’s Prevention and Treatment of Drugs program. In coming years, he hopes to spread his methodology across Brazil by strengthening the position of Project Quixote as a national and international symbol of what can be done. He will devote greater time to effecting public policy change, and to altering the way health professionals in the field approach street children.
Auro was born with a foot deformity, and for the first several years of his life, accompanied his mother each month to the local children’s hospital for treatment. When at last he was cured, his mother vowed to return to the hospital every year on his birthday to bring gifts to the young patients. These trips had a profound impact on his early development, instilling in him a life-long desire to help those in need. Even after he no longer needed treatment, Auro continued to be intensely disturbed by the insecurities caused by his disability. His parents entered him in psychotherapy as a child, which helped increase his confidence and which ultimately led to a normal adolescence.
Entering university at the age of seventeen, he intended to study engineering, but was quickly drawn to medicine. He soon realized that medicine was much more complex and profound than the alleviation of pain and became strongly attracted to psychiatry and understanding the human mind. While interning at a women’s infirmary, Auro worked with a woman who had been forced to give up her child for adoption, leading her into a state of psychosis in which she imagined the child had been kidnapped. Together with several other doctors and a group of patients, he put together a play, connecting the woman’s story to similar tales in Greek mythology. It was then that he discovered that the same intensity possessed by many drug addicts and psychologically disturbed people could be harnessed into a creative outlet and directed towards other passions. In 1991, after graduating in psychiatry, he coordinated a large mental health project in Santos, a major port city outside Sao Paulo state, where he worked with a group that ranged in age from youths to the elderly, and all had been institutionalized. Thanks to this experience, he continued to work on artistic exploration with mental health patients, and became renowned for his work in the field.
Yet, Auro became increasingly dismayed at the public’s mounting indifference toward street children, and in 1993 he enrolled in various courses overseas specializing in drug use and addiction. His new insights, combined with his experiences with counseling as a child, led him to found Project Quixote in 1996.