Sara Diestro is developing an imaginative and readily replicable program of support services for exceptionally disadvantaged and at-risk boys and adolescents in the poor zones of Lima. Building on their love of soccer and their enthusiasm for a major soccer club, the program offers its participants educational support and medical and nutritional services and enlists the loyal assistance of volunteers and public agencies in its endeavors.
The New Idea
Unserved by most public and privately organized welfare services, large numbers of economically and emotionally deprived youth in Lima and other Peruvian cities are in desperate need of assistance and guidance. Moved both by the immediate needs of such youth and by the strong likelihood that many of them will turn to drugs, crime and violence if those needs are unattended, Sara Diestro and her associates are developing a comprehensive support program built around their participation in the youth division of a soccer club (Lima Alliance Club) that enjoys particularly widespread allegiance in poor and marginalized communities. In a pilot initiative, in which some twenty boys from ten to sixteen years of age are taking part, the focus is not simply on developing their skills as soccer players but on providing them with carefully tailored support services in the fields of health, nutrition, education and social development. Drawing on the services of volunteer professionals and employees of the government's social assistance program, the program includes initial assessments and continued monitoring of health and nutritional status and a polyclinic that provides needed interventions in those areas. In the field of education, participants agree to attend school on a regular basis and receive additional tutorial support from volunteer teachers and university students. In addition, through a series of workshops and guidance sessions, special emphasis is placed on instilling discipline, honesty and respect for the rights of others, and on building self-esteem.
In implementing the program, Sara is supported by an informal association of soccer fans, doctors, teachers, psychologists and other professionals. Because of its sports focus, the program is also unusually successful in enlisting the support of participants' fathers and other family members.
In the slums and shanty towns of Lima and other Peruvian cities, large and growing numbers of boys and adolescents, most of them of mestizo or Afro-Peruvian backgrounds, are at high risk of falling into lives of crime, drug addiction and violence. Born to impoverished parents, growing up in congested and unsanitary surroundings, more often than not malnourished during their childhood years and frequently victims of physical and emotional abuse, they suffer from low self-esteem and see little reason to expect a brighter future. Most public assistance and privately-organized welfare programs fail to reach these youth. The boys and adolescents who are most at risk are not engaged in the church or community groups around which such services are commonly organized, and for most of them, playing soccer in the street is a much stronger lure than school. Indeed, the one institution to which they are strongly and almost uniformly drawn are the soccer clubs of which the Alliance is the prime example. But prior to the initiative which Sara is spearheading, their love of soccer only reinforced their isolation from schools and other social services that could offer them a chance for a better future.
Unlike most other efforts to address the needs of "at-risk" youth, Sara's Alliance initiative encounters no difficulty in reaching its target audience. Because of the immense popularity of soccer in all strata of Peruvian life, even boys and young men from the most marginalized of backgrounds seek to improve their own playing skills, harbor dreams of becoming professional-level athletes and are ardent fans of local and national soccer clubs. The participants in Sara's program are drawn from the many thousands of ten- to sixteen-year-old boys who seek admission to the junior divisions of the Alliance and other soccer clubs and to the sports and recreation opportunities that such programs involve. The characteristic that distinguishes Sara's initiative from other junior division programs, however, is its emphasis on the educational, health and social development needs of its participants and, more generally, on preparing them for responsible and constructive societal roles. The importance of educational achievement is emphasized from the outset, and participants make voluntary but firm commitments to attend school on a regular basis and keep up with their school assignments. Those commitments are reinforced by regular monitoring of academic performance and, as needed, by supplementary classes and tutoring services. The program also assesses and monitors the health and nutritional status of its participants and provides a broad array of medical, dental and nutritional services. The program's concern for the education and physical wellbeing of its participants is matched by similar attention to the nurturing of self-esteem and the development of positive social behavior–a concern that is manifested in part in "training for life" workshops and in individual counseling services when special problems are identified.
In part because of the dynamic leadership that Sara provides, but also because of the support that the Alliance enjoys among its fans in every walk of life, the program has achieved remarkable success in mobilizing the volunteer services of school teachers, students in Lima's most prestigious universities, doctors, psychologists, nutritionists and other health professionals. It has also met with similar success in obtaining commitments for needed services from governmental health and social assistance agencies. For that reason, although the range of services that the program offers is substantial, the financial outlays that it involves are quite modest.
In the near future, Sara plans to transform the informal group which has been working with her in developing the program into a legally recognized non-profit organization and to use that structure as a vehicle for raising additional financial support that would permit the expansion of the Alliance initiative and a deepening of the services that it provides. Over the longer term, she intends to encourage the development of similar ventures in other major soccer clubs and to create an inter-club working group to help spread the idea throughout the country.
Born and raised in Lima, Sara acquired the values and motivations that are reflected in her current work at a very early age. From her father, who for many years supplemented his modest earnings as an employee of a business firm by working additional hours as a taxi driver, Sara learned the importance of hard work and long hours on the job. And from her mother, who has long been active in mothers' clubs and church groups tending to community needs, Sara developed an abiding concern for the well-being of people in need of a helping hand. As a young girl, Sara was active in various church organizations, and as a teenager, she served as a youth leader in a Jesuit-organized "Christian community" with a strong social welfare orientation. As a high school student, she worked as a volunteer in a center for homeless people in Lima and in occupational workshops for physically disabled people. During her university years, Sara complemented her formal studies for a degree in social work with practical work in social welfare institutions in marginal areas and in a major prison. After completing her studies, she worked in various professional capacities in Lima's marginal zones and continued her voluntary work with particularly disadvantaged groups. Prior to accepting her current work with The Lima Alliance, Sara worked with Save the Children (U.K.) in child development programs in Lima's poorest areas.