Denise Robles has devised a method for helping poor urban families in Brazil to identify and cope with mental illness that gives the poor access to an umbrella of support services that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
The New Idea
Denise realizes that poor people with mental disorders who lack proper psychological care cannot take advantage of services that might help them gain the stability necessary for leading a productive life. Her program begins with mainstream and alternative therapies that enable parents and children to participate in a series of education, health, and job training services. By providing a stable basis for the family and offering ongoing psychological care, Denise reduces the drop-out rate from her program and helps create a solid social context for each affected individual and their family. Another reason for her program's low drop-out rates is its unique focus on training the volunteer staff in a way that helps match their skills and goals to their duties and activities. A "godparents" program enables affluent Brazilians to sponsor poor families through financial donations.
Common mental illnesses such as depression and attention deficit disorder are widespread and undiagnosed among the urban poor of Brazil. Those government services that exist are largely unavailable to those poorest families that live in shantytowns. Without a solid connection to his or her immediate family, a child must struggle doubly to overcome the social and economic barriers against people from low-income communities. Typically, poor youth who start internships soon drop out because of a cultural gap between their background and the workplace environment. The 1995 federal budget allocated only R$98.00 per child for health, R$57.10 for education, and R$8.60 for social assistance.
Denise's strategy begins by applying psychological treatment within small groups of parents and children. After the situation has been stabilized, the participants are placed in a standardized stream of social, education, health care, and employment support services. Gotas de Flor offers counseling for families to work through problems such as unemployment, divorce, and other stress factors that increase the likelihood of neglect and child abuse. In addition to basic healthcare, such as check-ups, dentistry, and nutritional assistance, Gotas de Flor, with the parents' approval, administers remedies donated by a homeopathic producer in California. In fact, the whole family often takes medicine for problems associated with depression, anxiety, or attention deficit disorder. Denise's organization currently serves one hundred fifty young people and their families, in addition to twenty-five parents who take extra night classes. Gotas de Flor's educational programming encompasses tutoring and physical activities. Children learn computer science and English and take ballet and yoga classes. Parents take literacy classes during night sessions taught by volunteers. Youth aged fourteen to eighteen participate in a focused job training strategy, a series of classes called Education for Work, where they practice behaviors appropriate to job situations and learn about interpersonal relationships through skits. Young people who pass these courses receive a certificate from the National Service of Industry (SENAI), a partner of Gotas de Flor.A varied funding base supports Denise's work. She has linked Gotas de Flor with "godparents," higher-income residents who sponsor children personally and with donations of fifteen to thirty US dollars per child. To date, sixty-two godparents have signed up. A plan to promote the godparents program via comic books was a finalist in the Ashoka Citizen Base Initiative competition for innovative fundraising strategies. The godparents not only help pay for programming but also open up channels between social strata. In addition to private donations, Denise has secured financial support from the Credicard Institute, Vitae, Multipropag Communication, and Bovespa. A partnership with the C&A Institute has provided additional funding. Denise is now looking for funding to build a sports center next to Gotas de Flor on land donated by the Department of Transit. Denise is sharing her psychological methodology with professionals who have requested training, and has established five satellite offices of Gotas de Flor. The next step will be to strengthen programs through closer management and additional volunteers.
When she was eight years old, Denise sold her family's old books to raise funds for low-income families in her neighborhood, until her parents found out and made her return the money and collect the books. Deeply involved in the Catholic Church, as a ten-year-old she taught the catechism to adults in her parish. She led a theater group until she was eighteen, when she began putting her own ideas into practice.Concerned by the great number of children selling candy at streetlights, Denise decided to investigate what kinds of services were offered to at-risk children. As a volunteer at a childcare center in the favelas, or urban slums, Denise found her path–direct service to poor children. She moved into management when she found the system too disorganized, bringing in in donors and assembling teams of volunteers. One problem she saw was the lack of connection between the center and the surrounding communities. Denise resolved to launch her own program.