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Actions Speak Louder Than Words: A TETO Experience

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: A TETO Experience

We are told throughout our lives that underprivileged communities, in Brazil called favelas, are terribly dangerous places that people should avoid at all costs. However, I feel like we never really do anything about this situation; in these communities, there are kids who are just like us – they have their own friendships, dreams, and hopes for a better future – yet they are forced to live in dire conditions. What about them?

It was six months ago when I first discovered a non-profit organization called TETO. I heard that they were working with many high schools to build emergency housing for families living in precarious conditions in a number of destitute communities all over Brazil and South America. At first, part of me felt uneasy about the idea; although it was something I would love to do, I felt like it was way out of my comfort zone.

But, honestly, what is one weekend spent building a house in comparison to living your whole life without adequate shelter? Although it involved taking a lot of risks and putting ourselves in a completely new situation, it allowed the people we helped to attain a level of comfort we had always been granted. I knew we had to at least try to work with TETO.

After researching their work, meeting with the school administration, and sending letters to parents, we had an organized group of students, two chaperones, and R$5,500 raised in donations through the generosity of parents and students in our school. All volunteers needed to procure a hammer and tape measure, find sturdy boots and gloves. We packed our sleeping bag and a toothbrush but left most of our electronic devices at home.

When we arrived at the public school on Friday night everyone felt, for the first time, that it was finally happening. All of our time and effort had been effective, and we were excited to start the construction. We woke up on Saturday at 5AM, quickly ate breakfast, and headed to the building site. The veteran volunteers cheered us up with songs and stories of their past builds.

When we got to the building site, we were all shocked for a moment. Studying in a school that is right next to Rocinha, one of the biggest favelas in South America, I felt like I had seen almost everything. I felt like I knew what poverty was. I thought I knew what “living in bad conditions” meant – but, as it turned out, I didn’t.

We met Sr. João, the cheerful man whose house we were going to build, and he showed us around the community. Jardim Gramacho was not like Rocinha, where the houses are built of bricks and actually have a roof. Here a typical house was more like a shack, a patchwork of wooden rectangles, all glued together under broken aluminum panels – although it was made of wood, it seemed as fragile as a house of cards.

We started building. First, we had to lay the foundation for the house, which was actually the hardest part of the process. That is so because the community of Jardim Gramacho was originally built around one of the biggest landfills in South America, with the purpose of housing the trash-pickers who lived off of collecting and selling whatever they found. Despite the fact that the landfill itself was closed down in 2012, the scars from its past remain in the area; the soil is ingrained with layers of the trash accumulated through the years. Digging in the land was so difficult that we needed extra help from other volunteers, who stood with us through many consecutive hours of pulling out old clothes, backpacks, flip flops, phones, calculators, and even bike fenders from the terrain. The waste of the rich had become, once again, an obstacle for the poor. It took us a day and a half to dig the future foundation of the house, and by Sunday midday we were apprehensive that we might not be able to finish on time.

After lunch on Sunday, with the foundation ready, we began securing the floor and putting up the walls. More volunteers from TETO came over to help us, each one working on something different. Some of us were nailing the floor while others were setting up the hinges on the doors and windows. Everyone was doing the most they could so we would be able to deliver the house by the end of the day.

It was now late afternoon on Sunday. The sun had set, and rain had started to fall. In the open space where there was once nothing, now stood a small, one-room house. While most of the surrounding shacks lacked a roof or even a door, our house had both.

Handing in the finished house to Sr. João was one of the most memorable moments of my life. Witnessing his huge smile at the end of the day, as he saw his home, made it all more than worthwhile.

I am proud of what we have done as students, as citizens. I am proud of what TETO does as an organization. Taking that step out of your comfort zone is never easy, but it’s always worth it. The process involved hardships, many of them, but in the end, they were nothing compared to what was gained from the experience. This project not only provided Sr. João and his family a roof, a door, a window, a place to call home, but it showed me that  complaining about the government or lamenting about social inequality does not construct anything. Each one of us has the power to do change the situation around. This experience made me conscious of how each one of us has the choice to make a difference.

When I arrived home on Sunday night, I felt happy to lie on my own bed, and I was content that Sr. João could do the same in his home. I felt satisfied that we had been able to provide his family with a feeling that I have had ever since I have been young, that feeling of comfort and of belonging. For this reason, as he said so himself, “There are other families out there that need our help. With the TETO team, I believe we will be able to overcome all of the obstacles that lay before us and we will mobilize more families and more citizens to do the same.” (João Leocadio)

 Isabel Brito is a Junior at Escola Americana Do Rio de Janeiro and in the NHS Alex Partos- Upper School Principal, EARJ


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