Teaching art in rocinha - Rio de Janeiro's largest slum

with the Angels of Project Favela

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil I travel 3 subway stops away from the beauty / safety of Ipanema where I meet Anna who runs the daily operation of Project Favela, a volunteer organization created to steer children of the slums away from violence and into more productive directions through art and education. She escorts me into the depths of South America's largest slum called "Rocinha" where a significant portion of Rio's working class lives.

I meet volunteers who come from all over the world here to help out. I find that this group fills the gap between public education and provides a place for kids to hang out and learn until their parents get home from work to pick them up. I expected a lot of discipline problems due to the marginal conditions these kids live in but was extremely surprised to find that several of them are brilliant, most all are respectful and all of them polite. I unpack my suitcase of supplies that I brought from the US, begin formulating curricula for the 4 different age groups I am teaching. A challenging but rewarding task. Because I am fluent in Brazilian Portuguese I translate for the other instructors in the more difficult to comprehend subjects such as trigonometry that I am amazed to see the 12 year olds are good at! I begin teaching various levels of art classes which are very well received.

View through the scrap iron sculpture, out the front door of Project Favela

This continues for a couple of weeks when over a weekend a turf war breaks out when rival gangs try to take over the slum, There are military style engagements with automatic weapons and at least one insurgent was killed. The school closed for a few days and some of the volunteers left for good. The more dedicated folks provided refuge for unsupervised kids in the school - even while this was going on. The government sent in the military to gain control (see picture below) and everything seemed to get a lot better. I felt safe enough to return but always texted Anna to get a report of the current stability before going in. My Brazilian friends would always tell me not to go - but since I always dreamed of making a difference in these people's lives it seemed too important to avoid.

Once again I travel to Rocinha and when I arrive Anna says "didn’t you get my message?" and I respond “no” she goes onto inform me that there has been more gang warfare at around 4AM the previous morning and said "I meant to text you earlier but forgot". She gives me a run down and I said well it seemed pretty calm on the way in and now that I am here I will give the class. Today I am teaching the youngest group of kids - around 5-6 years old. We are making paper dolls, snowflakes and decorating them. About 2/3 of the way through the class really loud gunfire erupts just outside the front door of the school maybe 15 feet from where we are. A grenade of some sort seems to go off as well. We all hit the deck and wait for it to subside. I guess about 30 rounds of automatic gunfire takes place. I ask if the door to the upstairs portion of the school where we are located is locked and the answer is no. Finally someone downstairs throws the keys up to my Italian art teaching friend Matte and the door gets locked. The gunfire subsides and we begin to relax as much as we can. Within 5 minutes it starts up again and I am glad we are in a masonry building. Then the military helicopters come in and sound like they are landing on the roof they are so close. I have never been in such close proximity to live fire being randomly unleashed within such a congested community.

I continue with the class and try to appear un-phased to help keep the children calm. One of the kids notices how much I am shaking and calls me out on it but I brush it off saying I am always like that….fortunately he doesn’t pursue it further. Once class is over I start to prepare for my usual departure when Anna comes over and says please stay with us so we can all go out together. I am like “of course”. So we wait until the breaks in the fighting are large enough for the parents to come pick up their kids. They arrive at the door nervous and in a hurry. Some of the kids are anxious and play wildly while some of the older, more mature kids sit in the corner and monitor their cell phones. We have two other volunteers from the US, with some from Austria, Argentina, Italy, and England as well as one Brazilian girl who actually grew up in this slum and provided a wealth of information about the drug lords and military police for us.

It is starting to get dark and I am beginning to think I will have to stay the night. I am texting my wife, Shelly, she tells me she love me and I can’t respond because I fear losing it and have to keep it together for the kids and my colleagues. Finally after an hour and one half all the kids have been picked up, hugs and well wishes exchanged and we convene by the door staging for departure. There are nine of us. Before we leave I point out that there will be a lot of doorways along the way to duck into if gunfire should erupt in the narrow allies leading out and that hitting the ground is not a good option. Because I communicate well with the people in the neighborhood, who are starting to mill about again, I take the lead with Anna and we all work to make sure we don’t get separated on our journey out. All of the locals seem astonished to see this group of foreigners coming out of the area of violence and seem to support us as much as they can – though clearly some are more credible than others.

After what seems like an eternity but was certainly less than 10 minutes we finally arrive at the bottom of the hill where the military police are in control. Since I am on my way back to Ipanema I hug and separate with my friends here while they get on motorcycle taxis to go back up into a different area where they are housed as part of the “Project Favela” housing. At this point it hits me and I feel really bad about leaving them behind in the midst of so much violence and can barely hold back tears. Some had indicated that they had never been so scared in their entire lives and the look of shock and fear in the eyes of some of the young women is something I’ll never forget. Earlier I had been considering inviting them all back to my safe harbor in Ipanema even though it is way too small to house everyone. When I got back I suggested to Shelly that sponsor them to come and stay in one of local hostels for the weekend. She agreed and I sent that offer to them for consideration. I mentioned later that I just hoped no one would be hurt and Shelly said well you can’t force them! I found this response odd and a clear indication that she could not fathom the camaraderie or trauma created by the experience. I realized also that the adrenaline was still pulsing through my veins and it really helped me understand the kind of impact being under fire creates for our soldiers. In retrospect I am really mad at the Brazilian government for being so corrupt that they won't even provide basic safety for these people, these children of hard-working citizens, in their homes. They only deployed the military to the area for a few days and then abruptly removed them when the situation was clearly not yet stable. Apparently there are enough kick-backs and profiteering from the drug trade that deals are made with drug lords that let them run amuck in these areas.

A clip from the newspaper "Globo" showing the tanks rolling in when the military showed up to restore order - which they did for about a week....