Volunteerism Is Blossoming in Brazil
By Stephen Buckley
Washington Post Foreign Service
NOVA IGUACU, Brazil -- Marcos Vinicius Aguiar Silva, 39, is unemployed.
He lives with his mother and barely scratches out an existence. Until three
he would wake up feeling as forlorn as the battered, weed-choked neighborhoods scattered across Nova Iguacu.
Then he decided to volunteer.
Now, he goes to the Chosen of the Light social services center daily,
giving children their medicine, gently scolding them when they misbehave
scooping up two youngsters in his arms at a time. "I want them to know that poverty isn't a disease," Silva said. "I want them to know that when we all take our
clothes off, we're all the same underneath."
Years ago, Silva's volunteer work would have been a happy anomaly in
Brazil. Today it is increasingly common. That is because people such as
Silva represent a
new face of volunteerism in this country -- the face of poor and working-class citizens who themselves are a small step away from needing the very generosity they
pour out for others.
Recent studies and a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggest the strength
of the trend. Rio de Janeiro's Institute of Religious Studies reports that
the number of
volunteer organizations in Brazil leaped from 1,041 to 4,000 between 1988 and 1998. One 1998 study showed 25 percent of Brazil's population of 170 million does
some sort of volunteer work, one of the highest percentages in the developing world. And another study, proposed and funded by Johns Hopkins University, found
that in 1997 more than 50 percent of Brazil's volunteers lived in economic desperation, earning the equivalent of 21/2 times the minimum wage, or roughly $230 a
Compared with the United States, where a Gallup poll shows that at least
50 percent of Americans do some volunteer work, Brazil has a relatively
low level of
volunteerism. But it is extremely high for a developing country, where a sense of civic participation often is difficult to find. According to Lions Club International,
volunteerism is more popular here than in several major developed countries, including France, Germany and Japan. And often it is a case of the poor helping the
The blossoming of volunteerism in Brazil is evidence of many things:
the seemingly intractable nature of Brazil's social ills, heightened concern
over how to solve those
problems and growing impatience with government's ability to address them. It also is evidence of how the power of democracy -- only two decades old here -- can
go beyond clean elections and fair trials to affect a society in ways that are subtler but no less profound.
"More and more as a society, we understand that our participation is
what will strengthen our democracy," said Milu Villela, president of the
Volunteer Center of Sao Paulo. "We understand that we have a role to play as citizens, and that's a new thing for Brazilians."
Volunteer efforts in Brazil run the gamut. There are soup kitchens and
homeless shelters, legal-aid groups and anti-violence organizations. And
the volunteers are
equally diverse, from hairdressers and homemakers to corporate functionaries and unemployed laborers.
Such involvement holds dramatic possibilities for Latin America's largest
and most populous country, whose notoriously warped income distribution
has led to the
angry isolation -- and until recent years, social apathy -- of its large lower economic classes.
"People know their rights now, and when that happens, they take action,"
said Uega Vieira, who lives in the Rio de Janeiro slum of Rocinha, where
participated in and led numerous volunteer campaigns.
Perhaps not surprisingly, volunteerism has flourished in struggling
cities such as Nova Iguacu, a metropolis of 900,000 inhabitants 25 miles
outside Rio de Janeiro.
Throughout the 1990s, homelessness, violence, poverty and wretched public services marked it as one of Brazil's most dismal cities.
Then in stepped volunteer organizations such as the Chosen of the Light
center, created by former merchant Jorge Mantilha de Oliveira. Today, aided
volunteers, the gruff, raspy-voiced Oliveira runs an institution that serves 202 people, including abandoned babies and youngsters, street children, unwed mothers and
disabled old people.
It serves children such as Bruno, 7, who lived on the streets of Rio
for four years. It rescued Iago, 3 months old, who was found as a newborn
in a river of sewage. It
revived Cassio, also 3 months old, who was left to die on railroad tracks.
Like many volunteer organizations in Brazil, it grew out of the religious
faith of Oliveira and several friends, followers of Allan Kardec, whose
Christian brotherhood with Eastern philosophy. Yet the center, whose volunteers represent a variety of faiths, survives on the kindness of hundreds of people whose
donations of time and money often require sacrifices of themselves and their families.
"We have people who are so poor themselves that they give us clothes
that are totally ragged and filthy," said Oliveira, 47. "But we take [the
clothes]. We wash
them, fix them up, and give them away."
One volunteer, hairdresser Iona Candido Fonseca, came to the center
one day recently to give haircuts. She said her own impoverished background
had spurred her
to use her talent to help those less fortunate.
"My mother raised me and 12 siblings by herself," said Fonseca, 27,
as she walked through the gleaming, well-lit transitional home for abandoned
children. "I don't have a lot now, but I've always wanted to do something like this."
Joao Luiz Melo Tavares, a civil servant who said he falls into Brazil's
lower middle class, comes to the center daily, even if it means arriving
at night after work. He
mainly keeps an eye out for sick children who might need to be rushed to the hospital.
"I wanted to be part of Brazil's solution," said Tavares, 41. "When you're a volunteer, you forget yourself a little bit."
Those who can't give time give money -- or clothes or milk or diapers
or toys. During a few weeks recently, Oliveira said, the center received
2,000 toys, three tons
of food and 5,000 pieces of clothing. Schoolteacher Sileia Candida brought 48 liter boxes of milk, 10 boxes of gelatin, 10 pounds of biscuits, cookies and crackers
and three sacks of toys.
"A doll, a doll," squealed one little girl as Candida's nephew, Gustavo,
reached over a gate to dole out airplanes, race cars and stuffed animals
to children playing in
the home's front room.
Candida, 30, said she had come because "the government doesn't really help. So we have to do our part, and who knows? Maybe we can make a difference."
In 1999, for the first time, Nova Iguacu officials did offer some help.
It came in the form of funds that pay nearly half of the organization's
$7,000 monthly budget.
Cristina Kuaresma, deputy secretary for the city's social programs, said that Nova Iguacu's government has come to rely on volunteers to support a variety of
programs from adult literacy courses to a city-run shelter for children to neighborhood day-care centers.
Nova Iguacu's evolution in this realm mirrors that of Brazil in general.
For decades, volunteerism was dominated by the thin upper economic classes
religious groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church. The government was rarely involved. But today, thousands of nongovernmental organizations and other
community groups receive government funding and a government-supported program created by first lady Ruth Cardoso has trained and dispatched thousands of
Nonetheless, some volunteers say they fear that their presence will
become an excuse for government to abdicate its responsibilities. They
also worry that increased
government involvement will dilute the independence of volunteer organizations.
Cleo Gomes, one of the Chosen of the Light center's head volunteers,
said the institution welcomes more financial support, but she fears the
government "would want
to tell us what to do. And I don't think that would interest us."
Gomes, who used to work in a denture factory, has one of the more poignant
-- and in many ways, representative -- stories at the center. She goes
there daily, after
spending eight or nine hours with her 2-month-old, semi-comatose daughter, Livia, who became ill while still in the womb. After hours of feeding the infant through a
tube and anxiously watching for the barest signs of improvement, Gomes dashes to the center to do paperwork, clean floors, cook food and shepherd visitors.
"I've assumed a big responsibility, and I'm not going to give it up," said the volunteer, 35. "Those children [at the center] are my children too."