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Tourists from around the world pass through Guayaquil, Ecuador on their way to the Galapagos. But they rarely stay long enough to notice the thousands of street children there who left home to escape abuse or to earn enough money to survive. Social service organizations say once these kids have lived on their own for too long, it can be impossible to reunite them with their families.

As part of our series on social entrepreneurs, NPR's Larry Abramson introduces us to one group that believes family reunification is essential.

LARRY ABRAMSON: In Guayaquil's slums, there are few street signs and fewer addresses. So it's easy to understand why, once again, Sylvia Reyes is lost.

(Soundbite of car)

Ms. SYLVIA REYES: (Speaking Spanish)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking Spanish)

ABRAMSON: Sylvia Reyes is founder of a very ambitious effort to help street children and their families. It's called JUCONI, a Spanish acronym for Together with the Children. Reyes and her colleague Marta Espinoza are meeting with a family that was once so troubled, Reyes wondered whether she could help them at all.

(Soundbite of car)

Ms. REYES: This was a terrible family when we started - and very, very violent family when we first knew them. The father was incredibly violent with the kids and with the mother.

ABRAMSON: Finally, Reyes finds the home of Angela Angulo and her children.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Ms. REYES: Hola.

ABRAMSON: This once terrible family looks awfully peaceful.

Angela Angulo smiles warmly as she introduces her three beautiful children. Kelly is 8 years old, Moises is 11 and Michelle is 13. The oldest, 17-year-old Jorge Luis, is not around.

We sit down at the kitchen table of their very modest but neat home. Music from a neighboring house shakes the walls as Angela tells us how she met JUCONI. It began six years ago, when the family was, well, a wreck.

Ms. ANGELA ANGULO: (Through translator) I had no hope. We were very poor. I was a child in the body of a woman without self-esteem. My kids were not in school. My husband didn't have a job.

ABRAMSON: Her oldest, Jorge Luis, was just 11 years old at the time. To help earn money, he would sneak out of the house to sell sodas on the street. He'd proudly bring home groceries, trying to replace his father as the breadwinner. But instead of praising him, Angela would beat Jorge Luis. She could not love him because he was the product of a horrible trauma.

Ms. ANGULO: (Through translator) When I was 18 years old, I was gang-raped. For a long time I was terrified of life. I was terrified of my own past. And all of that made me emotionally weak. I couldn't live with myself.

ABRAMSON: The memory is still incredibly painful, but Angela says working with JUCONI has made her stronger. The father now has a job. The children are in school. The violence is gone. But mother and son can barely stand one another. Jorge Luis, now 17 years old, tells us he is not ready to forgive her.

Mr. JORGE LUIS ANGULO: (Through translator) No, I'm not prepared to forgive her yet. She's said and done so many horrible things to me. I have a lot of hate inside me and I feel a lot of resentment against her.

ABRAMSON: JUCONI's methods are designed to reach families that other programs cannot help.

I asked Reyes whether these people just need more money. That's only part of the problem, she says. Some poor families in Ecuador can take care of themselves.

Ms. REYES: The families who are in the communities that we work in, all of the families are poor. But most of them are able to make use of the free services that are available. So there might be a health center there, and they use that health center. There might be a school and they use that school. Whereas our families that when we begin working with them, they can be next-door to a health center and they won't go there.

ABRAMSON: JUCONI never gives up on a family. That's one reason why this group can only take on a limited number of cases. The process takes a lot of time.

Ms. REYES: (Speaking Spanish)

ABRAMSON: When Reyes returns to families she hasn't seen for a while, it's like old home week. This is the home of Grace Mora. Her family has successfully completed JUCONI's program. They still struggle financially, but today, Grace Mora beams about her family and about the future.

Ms. GRACE MORA: (Through translator) JUCONI was always there for me. And before JUCONI came into my life, I didn't have the skills to be a functioning individual. I didn't know how to be a mother, a wife. I didn't know how to go about achieving goals to have a better life.

ABRAMSON: JUCONI helped persuade Grace Mora's husband to give up drinking. Her son Marlo(ph) was a street kid when JUCONI found him. Now he's at the university studying civil engineering. His first task when he graduates, he says, will be to tear down his family's cracked and broken home and build a new one.

JUCONI is housed in a modest building in downtown Guayaquil. Reyes says when she started 10 years ago, she just wanted to get as many kids off the streets as possible. Now, she's focused on developing a method that will work for families anywhere who are most in need.

Reyes shows us how she tracks the outcomes of her families. She relies on standards of emotional and physical well being and tries to apply the same measures for all her clients.

Ms. REYES: Where they started, what they were at one, is that there was physical and emotional maltreatment of the kids from the parents. And what we're hoping to move towards is that there isn't any.

ABRAMSON: Much as she still loves this program, Sylvia Reyes is trying to pull out of day-to-day operations of the Guayaquil project and focus on reproducing her success in other countries. Turkey, she says, is interested. The surprising thing is that these families actually let an outsider share their darkest secrets.

Ms. REYES: We begin by giving them a level of attention and focus on them they've never received from anybody before. So, actually, it's a really easy sell.

ABRAMSON: But Reyes says her approach is not always an easy sell to donors. They want to see clear results in the near term. And social scientists in the U.S. say reuniting troubled, abusive families can be risky, though they also say the alternative, foster care, can be even more harmful to children.

(Soundbite of cars)

ABRAMSON: At night, Sylvia Reyes and JUCONI workers go on the prowl looking for kids. This is another signature of this program's approach.

Ms. REYES: Hola, Susana.

ABRAMSON: Sure enough, we find Susana, an 8-year-old, dressed in fashionably skinny jeans. She's selling flowers to passersby. Susana tells us that she and her brother often work past midnight in the clubs and restaurant here.

Ms. REYES: Ah.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Spanish)

ABRAMSON: Susana and her brother know they should be working, but when the JUCONI staff pull out some games and puzzles, the kids are hungry for play. They only stop when their mother arrives and orders them to get back to work. A few days later, JUCONI talks with the mother. They've now decided that Susana's family will be part of the program.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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