Macarena Currín is breaking through the myriad, interrelated problems that keep the poorest down by helping families address their challenges rigorously and holistically.
The New Idea
Deep poverty is much more than an economic problem. The poorest people face innumerable, compounding challenges, especially in countries like Chile where millions of people slip through the minimal social safety nets that exist. Macarena has built a poverty-alleviation program that addresses all the keystones of prosperous (or poor) living–employment, housing, education, physical health, mental health, family dynamics, community social networks, and others. The strength of Macarena's model is not only in its holistic nature, but also in its use of the family unit as the focus of intervention. Macarena's Rodelillo Foundation works with extremely poor and at-risk families, coaching them through a comprehensive two-year rehabilitation period after which families are expected to have improved their situations–and enmeshed themselves in the proper support networks–so that they may embark on a healthy, happy, and sustainable path. The family-centered program is in sharp contrast to most poverty-alleviation schemes in that it eschews paternalism. The program demands dedication and agency on the part of participating families, and in return allows families to expect quality services commensurate with their commitment and hard work. Periodic assessments of families' progress are rigorous and results oriented, in contrast to prevailing "soft" poverty-alleviation methods.
Macarena's model is more effective than the prevailing poverty alleviation programs of both the Chilean government and other citizen sector organizations. It is also less expensive–about three-quarters the per person annual cost of the main government initiatives. It is no surprise, therefore, that Chilean government agencies have begun to reshape their programs in the Rodelillo image. Macarena's Rodelillo model is broadly applicable wherever societies wish to cost-effectively reverse the vicious circle of poverty and its attendant problems for their poorest citizens.
According to the 2000 Socioeconomic Characterization National Survey, 3,081,000 people in Chile (21 percent of the population) are poor, of whom 850,000 (28 percent of the poor) are "indigent." "Indigent" means that basic needs for food, health, education, and housing go unmet. These people are the poorest of the poor, living in shantytowns, removed from the formal economy, and struggling to get by. Unemployment runs about 20 percent among Chile's indigent. Hundreds of efforts have been made to combat poverty in Chile, both from state programs and from the citizen sector. The majority of these efforts have failed because they focus on particular dimensions of poverty (employment, for example, or nutrition) or on specific vulnerable groups (women or children) without taking into consideration that poverty affects whole family groups and influences every dimension of life. Programs that address parts of poverty–literacy initiatives, microcredit schemes, or disease-prevention campaigns, for example–achieve partial solutions at best. In addition, most of the initiatives to combat poverty in Chile are imposed on poor communities from outside agents, and tend to have a paternalistic bent. Paternalistic approaches do nothing in terms of fostering the strength and potential for development that every person and every family has. They may actually reinforce poverty.
Macarena's approach requires that families take initiative in improving their situations, and gives them resources to address all of their interrelated problems. When entering Rodelillo's program, families sign a formal commitment to change. Families pass through a two-year intervention period during which Rodelillo coaches them and provides them a variety of personalized services. Families' progress is assessed qualitatively and quantitatively every four months. After the two-year period, families are expected to be dealing with ongoing challenges in an effective, sustainable manner, although Rodelillo continues to track their progress.
Rodelillo's intervention is tripartite. First, Rodelillo provides psychosocial support. Workshops are the primary means of delivering these services. Whole-family workshops foster the desire and capacity to improve the family situation. Rodelillo provides individual workshops for mothers, fathers, and children to focus on issues specific to each family role. Second, families are coached in the development of concrete projects. Desired outputs from these projects may include, for example: strengthening emotional bonds within the family, achieving stable employment, acquiring a house, staving off sickness, enrolling children in school, or maximizing use of free time. Third, Rodelillo helps families integrate into community networks. These networks will help sustain the family when the two-year Rodelillo intervention has ended.
When they enter her program, Macarena's "clients" are in dire situations. They are young families that are considered high risk. On average, their monthly income is $150, and the household includes three children. Forty percent of employable family members do not have jobs. Fifty-seven percent of client families are guests in relatives' homes. Macarena keeps diligent records of clients' progress, to assess impact, and to be able to make program modifications. An external team sponsored by Chile's public agency for abandoned children, SENAME, conducted an impact assessment study in 2002. The study included a survey of families who graduated from Rodelillo between 1998 and 2001. It showed that 80 percent of families had maintained healthy relationships and bonds between their members, 95 percent of those who had received government-provided housing had maintained or improved their house, and 90 percent had attended the hospital and made use of healthcare networks. In terms of employment, 50 percent had kept a job and 50 percent had started productive initiatives. One hundred percent of children aged 6 to 12 were attending primary school, 90 percent of adolescents were attending high school, and 40 percent of parents had returned to formal education. Macarena also measures changes across family segments. For example, among the women, 100 percent had improved their self-esteem, 90 percent had learned how to communicate feelings and emotions, 50 percent had entered the labor market, and the other half had started job training. Among the men, most had assumed new responsibilities in their jobs, and 40 percent had sought higher-level employment. Half of the men had become helpful in domestic activities and responsibilities; 70 percent had curtailed highly "macho" behavior; and 60 percent had learned how to express feelings. Among children and adolescents, 70 percent of school dropouts had returned to formal education, and 90 percent had assumed new responsibilities in family life. The measures that Macarena employs, includes self-esteem level, healthy sexual practices, curtailment of drug use, social integration, and healthy recreation. A noteworthy success story is that La Granja´s current mayor is a Rodelillo graduate whose children are now studying at universities.
It costs Rodelillo $3,634 to cover a family through the two-year intervention, or $742 per person. This is about 77 percent of what the state pays on similar programs over the same time frame. Additionally, Macarena's model is much more successful than current state programs at lifting families out of poverty and reducing dependence on social assistance. Government per capita expenses are in effect perpetual, as recipients rely on the same provision of hand-outs (food, clothing, housing, and sometimes cash), year after year. In contrast, Macarena's expenditures are investments. Although professional support to families is of high quality, Macarena is able to keep costs down. Her team of 35 professionals are paid at social sector rates. Teamwork takes advantage of synergies. Macarena obtains free use of municipal facilities as attention centers. Auxiliary services that do not require professional training are rendered by volunteers; for example, Macarena utilizes retired teachers as tutors. Macarena also coordinates with government programs to achieve leverage. She coordinates with the housing agency, for example, as typically her clients are recipients of free housing.
Rodelillo has graduated 2,200 families. It currently serves 240 families annually in two districts of the Metropolitan Region, Normal Quinta and La Granja. Macarena is planning to open three more centers in different districts of Santiago, and is training staff to prepare for the expansion. Funding has come from public sources (SENAME, and FOSIS, the Fund for Solidarity and Social Investment), as well as a group of business people who have supported Rodelillo since its inception. Rodelillo also has joint ventures with university-based microenterprises, which earn income. In addition to expanding Rodelillo, Macarena is able to spread her innovative and cost-effective approach to fighting poverty through government adoption. The Ministry of Development and Planning (MIDEPLAN) recently designed a program modeled on Rodelillo´s approach. Called the Bridge Program, it will serve 250,000 families over three years. Additionally, thanks to Rodelillo´s influence, SENAME has changed its strategies in favor of solutions that keep children in their parents homes over those that place children in institutional homes. Macarena has also had influence on Chile's Health Ministry. The ministry has employed Rodelillo's materials on preventive health in health centers throughout the country. Abroad, Macarena has also planted the Rodelillo seed. When she lived briefly in Los Angeles, California, in 1997, Macarena instituted a poverty-alleviation program based on the Rodelillo model, using St. Margaret Mary Parish in the town of Lomita as an institutional base. Macarena trained leaders there, and the program has continued since Macarena's return to Chile.
Macarena´s father was from the Mapuche indigenous group and her mother came from a traditional family of French origin. Neither family accepted their marriage, so the couple was isolated. Macarena was not able to recognize publicly her Mapuche roots until recently. When Macarena was 3 years old, her father had an accident that caused him irreparable brain damage, and when she was 14, her mother died. The family was torn apart. Although the family had previously lived in comfort, Macarena and her younger brother and sister were sent to live in transitional homes and foster homes, dependent on the charity of good-willed people. Each sibling ended up in a different city. Macarena's childhood suddenly became solitary and painful. The experience oriented her toward a career dedicated to people with unfortunate situations or limited opportunities.
After seven years of living with their basic needs covered but apart from each other, Macarena and her siblings made the decision to return to live with their father in his modest shed in Temuco. They began to rebuild the family. Macarena and her brother were already at university, but they felt like strangers toward each other. They did not know how to express affection. Living in absolute poverty without hot water or heating, and scarce finances, together with the shame of living in a shed, did not help. But, with the firm decision to overcome their situation with the efforts and commitment of all four, they started by strengthening their family bonds, caring and showing affection for each other, and spending free time together. After some time they were able to move into a house. Looking back, Macarena feels that "my own family was the first achievement of Rodelillo."
In 1979 Macarena finished social work studies in the University of Chile and began working in the Hogar de Cristo Foundation in Concepción, which allowed her to have contact with hundreds of at-risk families, and trained her both in fieldwork and in organizational management. However, after four years she left the foundation when it tried to separate a group of children from their families because of the poor conditions in which they were living. Macarena disagreed profoundly with this policy, as in her own experience, "to live in a shed is heaven compared to being separated from one's family." In 1985 she started to work in the Central Station Municipality in the areas of housing and labor, where she started to comprehend how much a job and a house affect a person's dignity. She was in charge of the unemployment grants programs. She went far beyond paying the grant and developed training sessions for the unemployed, and helped them find jobs. When the government decided to stop providing grants, leaving 5,000 people without income, Macarena forged partnerships with companies and oversaw the start-up of productive initiatives in order to guarantee job opportunities.
In August 1987, there were tremendous rainstorms in Santiago, and Macarena visited a neighborhood shelter where 350 families lived in miserable conditions. She was moved by the families and decided to make an alliance with them: if they were able to save a certain amount of money during an eight-month period, she would raise the difference, and in this way each person would have his or her own house. Macarena's first inclination was to work solely with women, but soon she realized that all aspects of family life needed to be modified to achieve a sustainable change. Now her challenge was to obtain seed funding. A friend of hers had contacts with the private sector, and in just one meeting with a group of affluent Chilean business people with little experience in the social sector–using her modest, though clear and compelling style–Macarena managed to secure their support. The group of business people remain supporters; and most of them are on Rodelillo's Board of Directors.