Saturday, October 19, 2013

From Grief-Stricken Mom to Real-Life Angel: The Case of Casa do Zezhino

After telling some bad tales about my travels abroad (see, for example, Muggable Me), it seems like it should be time and only fair to tell a remarkably good tale that I learned about during my days of providing consultation to state and private educational programs in Brazil. It is one I have been meaning to tell for a while, and I do at least have a button about it under "Ways to Help Others" over there on the right-hand side of this page: Casa do Zezinho (Little Joe's House).

The following description comes from the English-language site:

"On the outskirts of São Paulo, there is a poor and violent region so dangerous, it is known as the 'death triangle.' Thousands of families live here and don't have the resources to move elsewhere. Children have no access to leisure activities—there are no libraries, no theaters, no museums, no parks to enrich their free time. In fact, on average, three children die in this neighborhood every week by violent means or neglect.

In the middle of this terror is a safe haven called Casa do Zezinho. This daycare and after-school center is a sanctuary for children and teenagers who take part in their educational programs as well as the arts and culture programs they offer. The children are encouraged to explore creative hobbies and engage in cultural activities as well as participate in self-esteem and self-development programs.

Dagmar Garroux, the founder of Casa do Zezinho, and known as Tia Dag, describes it as, 'A house where we learn with children, and children learn with us, how to open the doors which are usually closed by poverty.' Casa do Zezinho provides a sheltered place for the children to play and learn. It is a place where children receive attention, affection, nutrition and education. It is a place where they can find hope.

Their programs include the graphic arts: mosaic, paper recycling art, woodworking, ceramics and silk screening—as well as the performing arts: theater, dance, musical instruments, and singing. Instead of dead end roads, the children are shown the way to make positive choices for their own future."

What the website does not tell you is Dagmar's personal tragedies. I felt an instant bond with Dagmar when I learned that she had had a child with spina bifida, like my Noelle. Unfortunately, unlike Noelle, who has reached the grand age of 33 and counting, Dagmar's daughter died at the age of six. The loss of her daughter prompted Dagmar to found Casa do Zezinho. Instead of losing hope, Dagmar developed an approach to teaching (and life) that she called "hope pedagogy."

Beginning with just a few students, she had reached an enrollment of 300 when her father came to visit this marvelous oasis in the middle of Death Triangle. (I have been to Death Triangle and can personally attest to Dagmar's institution being a real oasis, where hope lives and grows.) Now, Death Triangle has earned its name: it has the highest per capital rate of murder anywhere in Brazil, and deaths come easily, quickly, and voluminously there. Dagmar's father was little more than one tiny number in a large statistic: he was murdered before he ever saw his daughter's triumph. She was heartbroken and angry and stayed away from Casa do Zezinho for a month after her father's death. Then, a group of older students came to her, told her that they missed her and that they had determined who had killed her father. They promised to take revenge -- kill the killers -- if she would come back. As she told me, she realized that this kind of thinking was just the opposite of what she had been trying to teach the next generation, and so she told them that she would only come back if they forgave the killers (and that she would, too). Forgiveness was had all around, and Dagmar came back in full force to build the institution to 1200 children and growing.

Dagmar's Casa do Zezinho is one of many examples of God turning bad into good. Dagmar's losses became a major gain for hundreds of children with some of the worst potential futures in all of Brazil; instead of looking at a life on the street, selling drugs, these children have learned about selling other kinds of things, things that they make, as well as have traveled to Germany to participate in a bi-cultural choir, giving them a perspective on life that ranges far beyond the small triangle in which they were born.

Good from bad is such a common theme with God. How can we we feel sorry at all for ourselves or our kids when God has used their plights to create delights? Because of Doah's experiences, many children who would otherwise have died have lived and a class of autistic children was left far less autistic. (I guess I should blog about the stories behind that statement some day.) Noelle has been a spokesperson for all kinds of disability-related events and campaigns, including being quoted at one point in the Washington Post for her testimony at a Congressman's hearing on special education (the only child to testify). Shura bonded an entire community that had only one desire: that he live (and he did).

And then there are those muggings where in just a few minutes I learned more about cultural aspects of the countries where I was mugged than I could ever have learned (or understood) from university studies. And, of course, there is the story of St. Francis Retreat; the new super-duper digs would never have been undertaken had not the old burned to the ground. Nor is it likely there would have been such a rallying of community support that is likely to last long after the new building opens.

I could go on and on about how many times and ways I have seen God turn bad into good, but I won't. I'll save the discussion for a future post when others can share their experiences, too.

I am, however, reminded every hour of every day of the goodness of God that is poured out upon the children living in a violent neighborhood in the bowels of Brazil through a real-life angel called Dagmar. You see, the clock in my office has the Casa do Zezinho logo, hand-drawn and given to me by a child from Dagmar's oasis.

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