Blanca Castañon first created a center that provides a model program of personalized education and support for street children in Oaxaca. Now, through FOCO ("focus"), a new organization, Blanca is extending her center's unique management discipline from the street children arena to a broader range of human service organizations.
The New Idea
Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of institutions responsible for monitoring and caring for Oaxacan street youth, Blanca Castañon founded the Street Children Support Center of Oaxaca in 1992. The Center provides education and specialized services–including nutrition, health, recreation and economic assistance –to the two primary groups of Oaxacan street children, namely, those who work in the streets and those who actually live there. With low administrative overhead and a cost per child of only $705 per year, the Center provides cost-effective services to some of Oaxaca's most vulnerable youth. Its success is the base from which Blanca has launched her next step.Blanca is extending exemplary management practices developed at the Center to the new Forum of Civil Organizations of Oaxaca (FOCO), the first organizational body that involves all civil organizations in the state of Oaxaca. FOCO, which means "focus," is a network of over 70 social assistance and social development groups which exchange information about their programs and experiences within the citizen sector. Blanca has utilized the FOCO framework to institute a level of accountability and discipline that is rare among service organizations: it will strengthen both the members who work specifically with children and youth, as well as a wide range of other human service organizations.
Before Blanca founded the Street Children Support Centers in 1992, she had identified a program for street children in nearby Cuernavaca as the best center for street children in Mexico. She therefore modeled her center after the JUCONI program and formed a partnership with it. Her work has shown remarkable results. To date, the Street Working Child program has reached 110 children and 55 families, while the Street Living Child program has attended to 45 children. It prides itself on its personalized education strategy and its commitment to providing creative solutions for individual needs. Over 80 percent of her participants improve their future prospects within a year.
UNESCO has selected the JUCONI Foundation as a model for educational development in marginalized communities; in partnership, JUCONI and Blanca's center plan to replicate their educational methodology in other Mexican and Latin American cities by the year 2000. This spreading strategy–dubbed "Goal 2000"–will focus first on replicating their proven practice of providing children and youth with the appropriate skills to solve their own problems and expand their abilities. It will then concentrate on promoting staff teamwork, professional growth and motivation; developing diagnostic systems that evaluate staff development, the content of services offered and the progress of each child; and finally, building transparent management systems that ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of services and respond to the needs of the children, staff and donors. The idea is to enrich existing child and youth organizations through the implementation of this methodology. Blanca and her colleagues plan to begin their efforts with four organizations between 1997 and 2000.
In addition, Blanca is spreading the model to new types of human service organizations. Through FOCO, she is extending a set of proven management practices developed by JUCONI that identify the costs and benefits of an organization's work in a very clear way. Based on her experience of what has worked with her center and beginning with the children's programs within FOCO, Blanca is carrying out a diagnosis to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each organization. Thus far, she has identified a lack of systemization, notably in informal education programs; a failure to adequately track each case and the actions taken and to create the necessary databases; an absence of cost-benefit analyses; and inadequate staff training to develop the caring attitudes required to work successfully with the boys and girls. Based on these assessments, Blanca will work with organizations to analyze their mission goals, build internal planning and tracking mechanisms to achieve those goals, focus on staff development and increase their institutional efficiency.
Through FOCO, Blanca is also developing a model organizational structure that will fortify field-specific linkages between member organizations and bring them together to collaborate across disciplines. By bringing members together to think about inter-institutional coordination and strategic planning, to share information and to develop common activities, Blanca has already begun to help organizations improve the quality of services offered to the different populations they serve. In a third phase of her strategy, which draws on her experience with street children, Blanca hopes to develop an institutional reinforcement program and a specific methodology for children and youth programs that can be spread to organizations in Oaxaca and throughout the region.
The fifth of seven children, from an early age Blanca felt the need to excel, to be recognized in order to get attention in her large family. At age fourteen, she participated in a school volunteer program that brought students like herself into impoverished neighborhoods of Mexico City. Through this program, Blanca helped teach adults how to read, assisted children with their homework and helped lead recreational workshops in theater, dance and painting. According to Blanca, this early exposure to and involvement with communities less privileged than her own awakened her sense of social responsibility and taught her the value of teamwork, creativity and basic human caring.
At age 21, having already received her degree in elementary education, Blanca decided to start her own school. With the help of loans from family and friends and with a small entourage of experienced teachers, Blanca launched the Child Development Center (CENDI), a small preschool in Mexico City that enrolled some 70-plus students by the end of its first semester. Although she describes the first year of the Center as one of the most arduous in her life, Blanca learned a great deal about administration, management and public relations through her leadership role at the school. However, when her son was born a year later with health problems and the doctor recommended they move out of Mexico City, Blanca and her partner reluctantly closed the school and moved to Oaxaca.
While working for a bank and supporting and raising her young child, Blanca spent her spare time carrying out a diagnosis of the situation of street children in Oaxaca. When she discovered, through her research, that these children were living in much more dire conditions than she had previously imagined, Blanca quit her job at the bank to dedicate herself full-time to solving this social problem.
Through the years, as her work has spread from her Center, to "Goal 2000," to FOCO, Blanca has retained her long-term commitment to engendering positive social change at the community level. In her own words, "I consider myself a person who gives herself the opportunity to devise utopias and to believe in the possibility of achieving them."