Long before Liberation Theology, Sister Nely had decided to serve the poor. She chose an extremely poor slum community in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul and set forth to see what she could do to help its children. In a very short period of time, she achieved tangible impact. The crime rate in and around this slum of some 7,000 people virtually dissipated, so much so that the local police station was closed.
Over the years, Sister Nely has developed and refined an approach with very clear guiding principles. She has, however, retained an element of experimentation that is entering a new phase.
Although her program has evolved a variety of family and community support dimensions, Sister Nely continues to focus on children. The family and community support services she provides include pre-natal care, maternal counseling, advocacy, (e.g., recruiting a team of 40 law students to fight to regularize the home site property claims of the residents), political awareness training (e.g., seminars in the community regarding what questions to ask of candidates and encouraging discussion and articulation of community needs), energy relief (e.g., food and clothing), and community meeting facilities.
Sister Nely's objective in her work with the children is "preventive treatment", hence her interest in broader community and family interventions. In working with children whose families are loosely linked, Sister Nely tries to achieve the balance between giving the child the quality education and support she thinks is important as well as maintaining and strengthening family ties where possible.
A dimension of Sister Nely's pursuit of this balance is her insistence on keeping children and families organized by their home community, even when the children are in one of her schools.
In working with the children she has developed a broad array of techniques. Among her varied projects are:
(1) Sister Nely organized a team of delinquent boys built a seashore facility to be used in the winter as a school by children of fishermen living along the coast. In the summer, it is used as a summer expedition base for children who would otherwise miss out on such an experience.
(2) She worked out an arrangement with the largest Federal Savings Bank that provides office boy employment for some of her students (2,000 so far). Employment was provided only to those remaining in school -- four hours of school and four hours working at the bank are required. Sister Nely considers this program to be exceptionally important since it opens up a type of career path unthinkable for children in this situation. This experience may have been the key model for a recent Presidential requirement that five percent of all jobs go to people with such backgrounds in major parts of the Federal government.
Sister Nely is now establishing a new rural location which she expects will be financially self-supporting from agricultural proceeds (a large piece of land has been seeded to the operation through her community fundraising). Here she hopes to accept troubled children on a boarding basis during the week.
Sister Nely envisions creating a chain of similar centers seeking to serve both directly and as a model of how to help children with inadequate family support escape the streets and yet remain linked to their parents. (One pattern among the "abandonados" is working the streets for a significant portion of the time and returning home with the proceeds after the end of the day or periodically.) A key to the scheme is the self-financing nature she thinks she has been able to work out for this first center. (Brazil has a good deal of land, much of it not heavily utilized. The current agricultural prices may be increasing this phenomenon.)
Sister Nely has asked for our help in supporting her personal financial needs while she is working intensively on the launch of this new rural center that she sees as a culmination of what she has learned over these last decades.