Gerardo Ferreira navigates his van through a labyrinth of makeshift shacks and narrow cobblestone roads in Asunción’s notorious Pelopincho slum – a crime-ridden shantytown even police are reluctant to enter – and comes to a stop.
“This is Heidi’s place now,” he says, pointing to a small brick house and getting out of the car. Abe Harder and Rudolf Duerksen follow his lead.
Harder and Duerksen are founding board members of Global Family Foundation – Winnipeg-based charity dedicated to the relief of poverty through education – visiting some of the projects their organization helped spearhead.
“Heidi runs her own business here and takes her whole family to church,” says Ferreira.
A social worker at the Mennonite-run Integrated Children’s Centre, Ferreira has been coming to these slums for close to 20 years, building relationships with the families of the children that use the centre.
On this day, he is following up with youth that once lived at the centre’s shelter but have since moved on to get a post-secondary education, pursue employment, or start families of their own. Heidi has done all three.
Inside the house, the 25-year-old mother of two is in the middle of giving a client a haircut in the tiny living space, which she converted into a hairstyling salon.
She proudly shows Harder and Duerksen her humble dwelling, complete with a fridge, bathroom, and two bedrooms – a luxury in this government housing project.
“When I first moved into the shelter, I had been living on the streets for weeks with my four siblings,” she says. “We left our house in the slums after my dad beat my mom to death.”
Heidi’s story is not uncommon in Asunción.
Close to 30 percent of the population lacks the income to afford basic necessities.
Due to a complex web of social issues like high crime, domestic abuse, and family breakdown, thousands of children end up living on the streets. That’s why Global Family Foundation is investing heavily in the education of children affected by extreme poverty – to equip them with tools that will help them rise above their circumstances.
Founded in 2008 by five families – most of whom attend Winnipeg’s North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren Church – the organization runs a child education sponsorship program at the Integrated Children’s Centre, is building a school in a marginalized township just outside Asunción, and started a Vacation Bible School program in Cuba.
Through the sponsorship program, children get quality education in a Christian setting that reaches far beyond the classroom.
“The teachers at the centre really pour their lives into the children because many of them know what it’s like to grow up poor and in broken families,” says Duerksen, who was the executive director of the Integrated Children’s Centre for 10 years after helping start it.
“Their approach is to build the children up, boost their self-esteem, and point out the enormous potential already inside them.”
Part of that approach is supervised homework time after school to make sure no child is left behind in schoolwork, and regular meetings with the parents or guardians to help improve family life.
“The pockets of people living in abject poverty are growing in Paraguay,” says Duerksen.
“Without an education, their children will continue the cycle of poverty and pass that poverty on to their children.”
Heidi is convinced she’s breaking that cycle.
A graduate of the centre, thanks to a sponsor, she started her own business and re-invests the earnings into her family.
“I use most of my profits to sustain my family and send my children to a private Christian school. That way they won’t have to go through what I did,” she says.
Also a graduate of the centre and now a youth pastor at an evangelical Mennonite community church near Asunción, Heidi’s brother is doing the same for his two children.
When Ferreira leaves Heidi’s place to head out of the slums, he turns to Harder and Duerksen.
“It takes generations to break the cycle of poverty,” he says.
“Heidi may still be in the slums, but she took the first step in rising above her circumstance.”