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NPR: the rapid growth in the number of street children. As cities grow, the number of street children grows. Social service agencies have had limited success dealing with this problem because there are so many causes, from domestic violence to poverty. In the first of a two-part series about the effort to get kids off the streets, NPR's Larry Abramson has this story from Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Standing on the front step of Segunda Ayobi's cinder block house, you can't escape the strong smell of trash and other waste that collects in a nearby estuary. Some of the homes look more like tree houses, shacks made of cane hanging over the water. Nearby, tough-looking young men glare at any strangers who cross their turf. Ayobi, a single mom, says this is not an easy place to raise a child.

SEGUNDA AYOBI: (Through translator) We have a lot of kids in the neighborhood who get involved in drugs - 13, 14-year-olds. And I was very concerned about that, because my son could see the other kids. You know, it's an easy slip into it.

ABRAMSON: A couple of years ago, Ayobi was very worried about her son Mario, who was just 13 then. With her limited income from selling home-cooked food, there wasn't much money around the house. Gradually, Mario gravitated toward the streets, trying to earn his own money. He stopped going to school.

: She asked a shelter for street kids to take Mario in.

AYOBI: (Through translator) It was a very painful decision. It was very painful for me, and it was painful for him. It was the first time that we separated. But I think that was the best decision for him.

ABRAMSON: Segunda Ayobi turned to a Catholic order that has taken a special interest in the plight of street children: the Salesians.

Padre Francisco Sanchez maneuvers his truck through Guayaquil's thick traffic, on his way to a shelter and school his order has built. Known here as Padre Paco, this Salesian priest is following his calling, doing what he can for these children who have been supporting themselves from a very tender age. The families they come from are often dysfunctional, Padre Paco says. Often, the best strategy for these kids is to don't send them home again.

PADRE FRANCISCO SANCHEZ: (Through translator) We don't do reunification work. However, we do help the families some. But we have a lot of what we call dysfunctional families here with a single mom, stepdad, abuse, so we strive to look for the best interests of the children.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS)

Unidentified Man: There you go.

ABRAMSON: We arrive at a beautiful, green campus. Walkways are lined with tropical flowers. Mosquitoes swarm in the morning heat. Padre Paco says the vast majority of the 80 or so boys here are black, from the poorest families of the city's poorest slums.

One group of teenage boys is learning woodworking and welding in a huge machine shop that's fitted with old lathes and drill presses. Many here stopped going to school for years as they wandered the streets.

The Salesians try to get them caught up in school, and teach them a useful skill. The hope is that they'll be able to support themselves not by selling sodas on the streets, but through a real job.

We meet Mario, the son of Segunda Ayobi. He's 15 now and has already been living in the shelter for a year and a half. Mario is years behind in his school work, and he seems detached. He's unable to talk about his family's situation.

MARIO AYOBI: (Spanish spoken)

ABRAMSON: Like many of the boys here, Mario says he's convinced he'll become a professional soccer player some day.

Many of these children came from homes where abuse was common. They've taken on the burdens of adulthood at a very young age. Omar Jagoal is the clinical psychologist here.

OMAR JAGOAL: (Spanish spoken)

ABRAMSON: Jagoal says that children get so used to the street life, if they have spent more than a year out on their own, it's almost impossible to reunite them with their families.

At the same time, these are not the orphans of "Slumdog Millionaire," without any family support. They do have family ties, and the Salesians try to take advantage of that. But Padre Paco says he cannot force families back together.

FRANCISCO SANCHEZ: (Through translator) We do ask that the families make a commitment. But in reality, we can't enforce it. Our goal is to give the child what he needs.

ABRAMSON: For the Salesians, this is the best way to help as many kids as possible. But many believe these families can and must be made whole if these kids are going to become functioning, happy adults. It is tough work. Hear about Juconi, an effort to mend broken families tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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