Gerardo, appalled by the lack of productive alternatives the "street" provides, is spearheading a program where street children can create and direct their own future.
The New Idea
With deep respect for children's ability to decide and act for themselves, Gerardo and the organization he created (Education with Street Children) EDNICA seek to give street children a better life now and a more constructive future. His approach works through family, community, and -- the children. Since he can reach only very few children directly, he and his colleagues are trying to develop an effective yet economic approach that communities across Mexico will be able to adopt. That is another important reason for its heavy reliance on the children and their families and communities.
Gerardo's approach to children already committed to the streets begins with a trust building process of getting to know a peer group cluster. EDNICA has spotted and leads on to trips, games, and basic services. Ultimately, taking direction from the children, Gerardo's team creates innovative workshops, with the children's decisions and input, to train them in attractive fields such as radio, video, photography, journalism, printing, graphic arts, and theater. These technical skills can, in the long run, lead to self-sufficient and self-managed micro-industries.
Gerardo also works with parents on the preventative level. He attempts to reestablish a positive relationship and link between the home and the child by working with everyone in the family. With each family he reaches, he reduces the risk of other children turning to the streets. Furthermore, Gerardo's program works at a community level, e.g. through teacher training workshops in high-risk urban areas. These workshops provide teachers with the tools they need to detect potential street children. Such detection allows EDNICA to intervene and modify the situation, before the child takes to the street.
Mexico's cities continue to grow uncontrollably. Population growth; the boring grinding quality of much rural life (and the lowering of subsidies and gradual removal of barriers to cheaper foreign corn and other crops); continued subsidies for transportation and other basics such as water and electricity in the cities; and growing numbers of Mexicans living below the poverty line (now some 41 million people) all fuel this on-going process.
Families and their children are often the chief casualties. Removed from traditional supports, and often unable to meet minimum income needs, and living in crowded urban slums that often are still not communities -- or any real sense of the word, families crumble. Failed by society, they fail to provide either the motive or emotional support children need. They need the children to bring in whatever money they can, and this need all too often translates into pressure to produce and disapproval and punishment for failing to do so. The street becomes an escape, perhaps the only way left to survive.
However, when living on the streets, these children become victims of abuse and exploitation, and they often suffer the incapacitating consequences of malnutrition, poor health, physical violence, and psychological trauma. Of the children living in the streets of Mexico City, forty-six percent come from other states such as Guerrero, Michoacan, Veracruz, and Puebla; two percent are from Central America. Grim is too kind a term to describe these children's future. At least ten percent of them die before reaching the age of twenty, and most of the rest will find it impossible to lead a productive life. A high percentage of them fall into delinquency and/or drug abuse.
Although many programs have been implemented, both by government and private institutions, the rate of failure is extremely high. All too often the community (including schools, churches, and service organizations) is unequipped to handle the children, let alone offer a feasible solution for their future.
Based on his eleven years experience with other programs, Gerardo's method successfully approaches the children who either live in the streets or who run a high-risk of doing so. The EDNICA promoters follow several fundamental steps. To begin, they observe from a distance where groups of street children congregate. The promoters determine the characteristics of the area, find out why the children remain at that specific location, and become visually identified with the group.
Then, the promoters enter a phase of participatory observation. The children, often to satisfy their curiosity, approach the educator and subsequently allow him/her to enter their circle. Once the group accepts the promoter he/she initiates a process of reflection without telling them about EDNICA. Out of 12 children, roughly five may form what Gerardo calls a core group. To encourage this process Gerardo 's EDNICA organizes a number of activities, such as camping and picnics.
After two or three months of this interaction, the promoters tell the children about EDNICA and invite them to attend the workshops. Thus the children start visiting one of EDNICA's street clubs, and begin participating in a series of activities that allow them to express themselves and develop their self-esteem: sports, mural painting, music, and newsletters. In the last stage, after they decide what they want to do (return to their families, go into a "home", etc.), the children define their specific alternatives for the future.
Gerardo also works preventatively with parents. For families with children at risk he forms support groups of mothers and tries to build each group into a steady and steadying force in each mother's life. The groups work early on to help repair the broken link between parents and children, thus allowing the latter to return willingly to their homes.
On the community level, Gerardo identifies schools attended by high-risk children and gives workshops for the teachers to help them identify children at risk. These sessions surfaced approximately sixty potential cases in each school, in a representative sample of seven schools. EDNICA is now starting work in five other urban areas.
EDNICA collaborates with sixteen other organizations working with street children throughout the country; eight of them in Mexico City. Gerardo's goal is to help them understand and adopt the approach he is developing in the communities they serve. He and his colleagues visit these potential collaboratives more or less regularly, provide consulting help when useful, and links them together and provides ongoing help through a data base EDNICA is building of all the organizations working in the field. Gerardo hopes thus to spread his program without having to wait to open EDNICA branches in other states.
The second of five siblings, Gerardo lived in an urban neighborhood surrounded by a difficult environment. He witnessed directly the destructive conditions of urban poverty and its consequences. Very early he began to work to change these social conditions. Even though he was a good student, his interests were thus focused outside of academia. Just before graduating from high school, Gerardo left his home and started working with prisoners in the state of Pachuca. His interest in children led him to collaborate with one of the pioneers in the work with street children in Mexico. After a number of years of apprenticeships, he established his own organization to implement the next generation of ideas he had gradually created and sharpened in his mind.