Shade and Fresh Water in Brazil

United Methodist Women-supported shade and fresh water programs help Brazilian youth make positive life choices and become leaders.

Shade and Fresh Water in Brazil
Shade and Fresh Water students read on a bench in Liberdade, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

In Brazil, students attend school in half-day sessions, either in the morning or afternoon. This leaves students with a great amount of free time to fill. Shade and Fresh Water, a program of the Methodist Church of Brazil supported by United Methodist Women, offers recreational and educational activities for students outside school hours. It is also a safe place for them to grow personally and spiritually.

Shade and Fresh Water is an afterschool network for at-risk youth ages 6 to 14. The project began in 2000. It operates primarily out of Methodist churches and aims to provide positive alternatives to the destructive choices youth are presented with, especially when faced with poverty, drugs and unstable home lives.

Around 9 percent of Brazil’s population lives on less than $3.20 (U.S.) a day, which is just under 18 million people, according to the World Bank, and 8.9 million live on less than $1.90 per day, considered the international poverty line. In March 2018 Brazil’s unemployment rate rose to 13.1 percent.

Despite being ranked among the world’s largest economies—8th in the world by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank—economic inequality is severe in Brazil. As in the United States, the divide in Brazil between the “haves” and “have-nots” is large. Brazil’s six richest men have the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent of the population, reports Oxfam. The country’s richest 5 percent have the same income as the remaining 95 percent. 

“Brazil is going through the worst economic crises of its history,” said Gordon Greathouse, retired United Meth-odist missionary, who with his wife Teca Greathouse worked with Shade and Fresh Water while serving in Brazil for 40 years. He also worked for United Methodist Women in the 1970s as a seminar designer. “It has always had a problem with drugs, and the last 20-30 years have been very difficult just in terms of drugs. With the economic crises, the problem has exploded even more, and when you have no money, people end up stealing and doing things they probably wouldn’t do under normal circumstances.”

Greathouse served as my translator, along with Keila Guimaraes, national coordinator for Shade and Fresh Water.

Brazil and the United States also share a similar, unsuccessful approach to the “drug war”: imprisoning minor offenders and addicts, fueling the problem by criminalizing drug use and possession. An increased rate of incarceration combined with austerity measures that have cut social programs and an untrusted government plagued with corruption have helped drug cartels thrive in Brazil.

Children, faith and mission

It’s against this backdrop that Shade and Fresh Water works to provide not just respite from hardship but leadership skills for Brazilian youth.

“The purpose of Shade and Fresh Water is to help children develop healthy values and to think not only of a better life for themselves but also ways they can contribute to make a better community and world,” said Greathouse.

I visited programs in Belo Horizonte and Niteroi, which is across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. In Niteroi the economic divide is palpable, with highly prized coastal real estate directly neighboring impoverished communities. The main focus of the Shade and Fresh Water program there is tutoring, according to Julia Batista Fernandes, who started the Niteroi program with her husband.

“The reality of the community here is very interesting,” she said. “The neighborhood is considered high middle class, but in the midst of that you have low-income areas, where many of the children who attend the program live, isolated from the high-class status around them. There are good private schools around, but they are too expensive, and one of the public schools in the area closed. The children who attend public school have to travel long distances into other neighborhoods.”

The program helps meet educational needs with homework help and help with reading and writing. It also offers some recreational activities like soccer and slacklining (walking and balancing on a low-hanging rope). Fernandes has seen children find a community at Shade and Fresh Water and has seen them blossom and grow.

“My inspiration to do this work is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism,” said Fernandes. “He had love and compassion for children and believed in taking care of them, and so I am committed to show each child how God is merciful and shows love.”

Methodist churches across Brazil open their doors to children in their community through Shade and Fresh Water, run by volunteers at the churches.

“Jesus showed an interest in children. He blessed them. He healed them. He listened to them. And he involved children in mission,” said Greathouse. “The multiplying of the loaves and the fishes came because of a child, not an adult, so the church needs to embody a wholistic love—not just helping children but making them part of the mission.

“If I had not had a pastor who listened to me as a 10-year-old child,” he continued, “I would not have continued in the church. It was because a pastor listened to me and involved me that made me feel I had something to contribute. My dream is that each local church be a place where children and teenagers can go to find somebody who responds to their needs and listens to them.”

A safe place to grow

In Belo Horizonte, I visited programs in the neighborhoods of Liberdade and Sao Gabriel. Liberdade is a newer program that grew out of a Habitat for Humanity project outside of the city. It’s gone through a fair amount of economic growth, but it’s still a marginalized population relocated to an isolated suburb.

Leticia Guimarães Valadares, 12, finds respite and support by attending the Liberdade Shade and Fresh Water program. She started going to the program to “lighten up” her life “a little bit.”

After an uncle went to prison and her parents separated, she had a hard time coping. “I got really upset and was crying all the time and my hair began to fall out,” she said. “My mother took me to a doctor, who said I was having a lot of emotional problems and needed something different going on.”

She appreciated especially a recent discussion on not judging others, and she likes that the students in the program learn to respect one another.

“Before coming to the program I would feel so alone and I would cry a lot. Coming here I had fun and was involved in activities,” Valadares said. She thinks if Shade and Fresh Water weren’t an option she’d have “gone in a bad direction.”

“I would be rebellious and probably get into trouble,” she said. She wants to finish high school and go to college to study law.

Silene Rodrigues dos Santos has worked as a teacher at the Liberdade Shade and Fresh Water since 2012. In 1988 dos Santos, 42, came to Belo Horizonte with her family. They moved to the city because it offered jobs. She, her parents and five siblings lived in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom home, which they rented.

“It was very difficult because we needed food, we needed clothes and the basics to survive. Many times my parents didn’t eat because they wanted to make sure the children were fed,” she said.

Even though her parents found work, the pay was too low and rent too high to provide much more than basic needs. She and her siblings were often home alone while their parents worked. At age 13, she started going to the nearby Methodist community center.

“If we weren’t at school, we were at the community center,” dos Santos said of herself and her siblings. “There was lunch, there were people to care for us, there was affection.”

Her family was able to move into a Habitat for Humanity home in Liberdade in 1989, and her situation improved, she said, because the money once going to rent could now pay for clothing, shoes, home improvement and education and school materials. The Greathouses started Habitat for Humanity in Brazil, and dos Santos’ mother was part of the women’s association that got the government to donate the land. dos Santos works with Shade and Fresh Water to help youth like her.

“I am working with this project because the Methodist church helped me and my family. I want to help other children, teenagers and families. When my family needed help we got it, so I decided to work here, because this project is God’s project and I believe in God and God is here.”

Vinicius Guimarães dos Santos, 20, grew up attending Shade and Fresh Water programs. For the past four years he has helped lead music, recreation and sports classes at Shade and Fresh Water in Liberdade. Sports and music offer youth constructive and creative ways to spend their time, especially in an area where he says drug use and crime are prevalent.   

“I want to spend my life helping people,” he said. “That’s what God gave me to do, so I hope to be able to help people follow a good path in their life.”

The afterschool programs in all three neighborhoods I visited are popular and highly sought, some even with waiting lists of up to a year. The programs offer a variety of activities that really appeal to the students in addition to tutoring and mentoring. The children I saw were safe, happy and thriving.

When I asked David Gabrielle Rodrigues das Gracas, one of the young students who attends programs in Sao Gabrielle, what he likes most about Shade and Fresh Water he replied: “Sports.” In particular “prison ball [like dodge ball], soccer, handball and basketball.”

Another student in Sao Gabriel said she had a lot of friends in the program and wants to be a teacher when she’s older. “I’d just be sitting home watching TV,” she said, if she didn’t participate in Shade and Fresh Water.

United Methodist Women support

Greathouse cites United Methodist Women grants as key to providing educational programs and training. Money for grants comes from United Methodist Women members’ Mission Giving.

“We’ve even had a couple of United Methodist Women circles put together scrapbooks of pictures of animals from around the world or people from different cultures, and we’ve used these picture books in different classes,” he said.

“I think United Methodist Women has a networking ability to raise more clearly the needs of children, wherever they are, and help bring people together to make a difference in developing positive and healthy communities,” Greathouse continued. “There are many things that United Methodist Women members do, because, quite frankly, United Methodist Women is key in all the programs of The United Methodist Church.”

Shade and Fresh Water projects are even starting to expand to older youth up to age 18, Greathouse said. They are trusted and respected in the community, building on long-term relationships and love.

“The project was like the oasis that I needed at a specific time in my life,” said Davidson Alves Gervasio, sports coordinator at the Sao Gabriel Shade and Fresh Water, “in terms of the man that I have become, the values that I have. I learned a lot inside of the project.”

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist based in Mendocino, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 11/7/2018 12:00:00 AM

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Shade and Fresh Water: After-school programs for at-risk youth in Brazil