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Socialite's School Brings Hope To Brazilian Slum

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Socialite's School Brings Hope To Brazilian Slum

Latin America

Socialite's School Brings Hope To Brazilian Slum

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(Soundbite of music)

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The news from Brazil's slums, known as favelas, is usually grim - like the spate of violence in October that was punctuated by the downing of a police helicopter. But there are those who are fighting against the odds in the favelas, including a Rio de Janeiro socialite who's also dedicated her life to teaching and trying to save the poorest of the poor in some of the worst favelas.

NPR's Juan Forero has her story from Rio de Janeiro.

JUAN FORERO: The name of the school is all touchy feely, Children of the Golden Rainbow. And when the founder, Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, gets there in the mornings, it's all hugs and kisses.

Unidentified Child #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. YVONNE BEZERRA DE MELLO (Children of the Golden Rainbow): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: But once classes start, it's all business, just the way Bezerra de Mello likes it. She quickly begins class her way, with a group of pint-sized students singing ditties usually not heard in the favelas.

Unidentified Children: (Singing) You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You never know...

FORERO: The students quickly switch to French.

Ms. BEZERRA DE MELLO: Fran�ais.

Unidentified Children: Fr�re Jacques, fr�re Jacques, Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez les matines...

FORERO: And then it's on to Spanish.

Unidentified Children: (Singing in Spanish)

FORERO: Bezerra de Mello then presses them with a memory game to repeat numbers or phrases as fast as they can.

Ms. BEZERRA DE MELLO: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Bezerra de Mello said the idea is to engage children who've been written off by society.

Ms. BEZERRA DE MELLO: What's my goal? My goal is to diminish the intellectual gap between classes. This is the issue for Brazil, for India, for it doesn't matter who. You can give food. You can give clothes. Okay. But the intellectual gap will be there and so no way of improving the country. But who take cares of the brain? I'm taking care of the brain.

FORERO: Lately, Brazil and its popular president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, have gotten worldwide attention for lowering poverty and closing the gap between rich and poor. Some economists say Brazil's a model for the developing world. But this country of 190 million remains a nation of stark inequalities � and Bezerra de Mello knows it better than most.

She was raised in affluence in Rio de Janeiro, studied sculpting in Europe, languages in Sweden and Italy. She speaks six languages. Her husband is a hotel magnate. Her home's in one of Rio's most elegant neighborhoods - a big apartment crammed with art works, and it's got a lovely view. On weekends, she rides show horses and relaxes in a country house in the mountains. Then came the Candelaria back in 1993.

(Soundbite of a news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: TV news recounted how police opened fire on street children outside the Candelaria Church in Rio, killing eight. The brutality shocked the world and Bezerra de Mello went on a mission.

Ms. BEZERRA DE MELLO: From that day, my life changed very much. I was already committed to children activities. The question was, what's to do next for me, huh? That's why I took the survivors and I went down a bypass and built this project in the streets with the survivors.

FORERO: With 62 children who lived in the streets around the Candelaria, she started a school - first, under a downtown viaduct, the walls were made from flimsy planks. The roof was the bridge itself. Times have changed.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: These days the kids learn modern dance. The school is now 12 years old - growing thanks to donations from philanthropists from around the world. It's located on the edge of a favela called Mare. It was once a swamp. Now it's a neighborhood of dark, forbidding corridors where three drug gangs battle it out. Bezerra de Mello's school is not bright and airy. The classrooms are cramped, the stairwells are narrow. But it's stocked with books, has a computer lab, blackboards, desks. And teachers push the children hard, and not just on academics.

Ms. DE MELLLO: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child #3: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Bezerra de Mello says she makes it a priority to emphasize the little things, like the way children talk.

Ms. DE MELLLO: If they want to go forward in life, they have to speak correctly. And so what they do here is to learn all those details we work out here. And so in the age of 10, they behave very good, they talk very good, they know things, they can hold a conversation - it doesn't matter what subject because we have their training since they are four years old.

FORERO: It's still an uphill battle. Children in Mare suffer from AIDS and broken families. Violence is a fact of life. Bezerra de Mello says 360 children she's known and worked with have died. But Bezerra de Mello won't give up. She's 62 now, looks 20 years younger, and runs around with as much energy as one of her students. One boy, Brandon Santora da Silva, is just six and arrived recently at the school, hardly able to talk.

(Soundbite of child crying)

FORERO: He lives with his mother and five siblings in a cinderblock room, barely six by 10 feet, one bed, no running water, no bathroom. His mother is Liria Gomes Almeida.

Ms. LIRIA GOMES ALMEIDA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She says her boy used to fight and run away from home. Now he's obedient, calmer. She says he's even learned to write his own name. Bezerra de Mello doesn't call Brandon a success story. It's too early for that. And she is a blunt pragmatist. But that's not to say she is not optimistic about her children, as she calls them. It's an opinion she often shares with Rio's elite, who have at time shunned her. Bezerra de Mello says those elites scorn the poor in their midst whom they blamed for the city's crime.

Ms. DE MELLLO: Many people said to me, you're crazy, you cannot raise the favela kids. And I said, okay, come to it and see, just see for yourself, that it's possible to do that. I work hard on that, you know, I want to change that pattern, that favela kids are bandits. But it's not an easy task, it's not an easy task.

FORERO: Increasingly though, people are starting to listen. She was recently hired to coach 150 teachers from some of Rio's toughest public schools.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

SIMON: Her story was produced by Peter Breslow. To see photos of Yvonne Bezerra de Mello in action with her students, you can go to our Web site npr.org.

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