THE SI A LA VIDA PROJECT:
A WAY BACK INTO SOCIETY
By María Mercedes Mendoza
A new day dawns. It's 6:00 am and the children from the Sí a la Vida shelter are getting up and starting their daily routine; washing their clothes, having breakfast and then cleaning the house.
Classes start at 9:00 am. They have to learn to read and write before starting primary studies. They also learn a variety of crafts: they make piñatas, masks and colored wool bracelets, which they sell in the neighborhood.
Yet until recently these children, all under 14 years old, were street children who spent their days and nights in Managua's Iván Montenegro market, many of them addicted to sniffing glue.
The Sí a la Vida Rehabilitation Center is in Villa Austria, a poor neighborhood near the market. The project was founded in February 1994 by US citizen Jonathan Roise. And two years later, the results are impressive.
Jonathan Roise first came to Nicaragua in 1989. He worked with a Quaker group on community projects in San Francisco Libre, and with the Quincho Barrilete youth organization in Managua. He left in 1992, but returned in 1994 to work with juvenile drug abusers. At that time, he never imagined what his work would lead to. But once he dreamed up his project and started putting it into action, other foreign compañeros and members of the local community (such as project co-founder Mercedes Guido) volunteered their help with food preparation and other activities.
His friends helped him attract children to the project. Conrad Morgan, a sociology student from New Zealand, even used to shine shoes in the market to make money to help maintain the children.
Roise stresses that the center, founded to help children find their way back into society, survives economically on numerous small donations from personal friends, not only from Seattle (Roise's home town) but also from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Great Britain and Germany.
The only institutional donation that they have received came from the British Embassy in Nicaragua, which a few months ago gave US$8,000 to build the shelter, which houses 15 children.
The project also receives support from several Nicaraguan organizations: the SOYNICA children's lunch program and the evangelical organization CEPAD both provide food, while the Ministry of Education offers teaching materials and the Nicaraguan Children's Fund holds workshops for the helpers. They have also received donations of clothes, zinc for roofing and a refrigerator.
Roise feels it is vitally important to give the children love and understanding, and try to convince them that if they change their way of life they will have a better future. A carpenter by trade with a family of his own, he has already been in Nicaragua longer than he originally planned. When he does finally leave, he is hopeful that the local Nicaraguan volunteers will be able to continue the project.
Martin Reilly, a Baptist priest from Australia, comes into the house surrounded by kids. They have just finished up a long baseball game and are tired and dirty, but there are big smiles on their faces.
Sports and weekend trips out of Managua are also regular events for the youngsters here, to build up their physical and spiritual strength so that they can forget their troubles for a moment and take their minds off the drugs that they are trying to give up.
Reilly has considerable experience working with young offenders: he worked with adolescent street gangs in Australia before coming here. He said that it is difficult to win their confidence "because the violence on the streets makes them feel like caged animals, in an world where everyone has to fight for their own survival, and it doesn't matter if they have to rob or even kill to achieve it."
So the first task is to develop a relationship with the child. Only then is it possible to offer them the chance to change, to learn a trade, and, if it is still possible, to return home to their own homes.
"These children suffer from a lack of love; if they did not get it at home, they certainly did not find it in the streets. They don't know how to respect themselves or other people. So we try to teach them not only academically, but in a much wider sense, so that they have a sense of personal dignity and self-worth and can accept their responsibilities in life," said Reilly, who also spends four nights a week in the shelter to look after the kids.
Psychologist Rosa María Mendoza is the project's only specialist. She sees the work as a process of transition, albeit a very slow one, in which the children re-integrate themselves into their own families, or if this is not possible into a foster home. Only as a last resort are the children placed in state institutions.
Mendoza agrees with Reilly that the children suffer from emotional instability: "their ability to show affection has been undermined by street violence, so that they cannot express emotions such as happiness, sadness, or pleasure. They generally resort to anger to demonstrate dissatisfaction."
They also suffer from egocentrism, since in the streets they have to survive as best they can and only establish momentary alliances for mutual protection; when they get together with other kids to steal something, for example."
"Why should I bother, if I don't even know if I'll be alive tomorrow;" "I don't care if they throw me out;" such statements show the skepticism which entraps the children, though according to Mendoza deep down they know that the people here are genuinely concerned about them. Once they have thought it over, they finally accept the situation, and those who leave usually come back.
The center keeps records of each child's progress, noting down the date of entry and the number of days they manage to resist the temptation to sniff solvents. If they leave the center, the slate is wiped clean and if they return, they start from zero. Those who accumulate the most days get rewards, such as new clothes. In this way the most troubled children are motivated to take responsibility for their own actions.
According to UNICEF figures, there are an estimated 500,000 children in Nicaragua in especially difficult circumstances, in a country with a population of only 3.8 million. Approximately 1,100 of them live on the streets, one third of those in Managua. The rest are found in the main regional urban centers, with the exception of the North and South Caribbean regions.