(Catholic Herald staff member Maryangela Román traveled to the Working Boys’ Center in Quito, Ecuador, Jan. 16 to 22, as part of a “spiritual journey” offered through Family Unity International, Elm Grove.)

Two little girls race toward the towel counter at the Working Boys’ Center, are handed a towel and bar of soap and take off running toward the showers. From below, mouth watering smells of cinnamon buns, scones, bread and other pastry made and served in the bakery are wafting through the air.

The stylists in the shop next to the bakery are setting up their stations getting ready for a day of haircuts, manicures and colorings, while across the way, the machines in the carpentry, automotive and welding shops are buzzing to life, as are the sewing machines in the sewing center where a room full of girls is sewing neon flags to fill an order for an Ecuadorian political party.

So begins another day at center two of the Working Boys’ Center A Family of Families in Cotocollao, Ecuador, in the northwest part of Quito. A similar day is unfolding about eight miles away at center one, located in downtown Quito.

The sun rises over the Andes mountains visible just behind the rooftop of center two, a gentle breeze is in the air and the early morning temperature in the low 60s is likely to top out close to 70 – as it does every day of the year. Since Quito is located just 16 miles south of the equator, the temperature is virtually steady year-round.

Likewise, days at the center are predictable and steady. Six out of seven days a week, families come to the center – some on foot, others in buses – to not only bathe and eat three meals a day, but to learn how to be working members of society as they gain skills that will allow them to move from poverty to prosperity. They also have the opportunity to attend daily Mass, celebrated by Jesuit Fr. John Halligan, founder of the Working Boys’ Center.

Center gives family new purpose

Among the families arriving is the Cordova-Cotacachi family who enrolled in the center in January 2011. Dad, Luis, age 32, was a heavy drinker when they first enrolled, according to Sr. Cindy Sullivan, a member of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary and one of the center’s directors known as Madre Cindy. The family, who resides in two little rooms on the rooftop of a building in Quito, includes Luis’ wife, Graciela Cotacachi, also 32, and six children: Karina, 13; Maria, 11; Efrain, 9, Martha, 7; Antonio, 6, and Luis, 3.

Quick WBC facts

  • Approximately 400 families – more than 2,000 people – are enrolled in the center’s two locations.
  • This includes 278 children 5 years of age and under, 598 school aged children, 451 teenagers and 677 parents.
  • A third center primarily addresses medical needs. On an average 7,000 patients are seen annually.
  • There are about 207 paid employees.
  •  Volunteers, most of whom are recent college graduates from the United States, spend a year or two teaching at the center.
  • The center’s 10 values are: Loyalty, Personal Formation, Family, Religion, Education, Health, Work, Recreation, Economy, Housing
  • Family Unity International Inc., was created in Elm Grove, by Madre Miguel’s sister, Patricia Parks, to raise money for the work of the WBC. Parks’ daughter, Patricia Jessup, is U.S. Development Director.
  • Family Unity International offers several opportunities to see the work of the center firsthand. A spiritual journey is a guided visit that includes tours of the center as well as side trips to the Andes Mountains, an Ecuadorian marketplace and tourist destinations such as the equator.
  • A minga house building experience is a 10-day service trip where travelers assist in building a home. Tours of the center and country are also offered.
  • For information on volunteer or travel opportunities, visit www.workingboyscenter.org or (414) 534-8285 or patricia.jessup@workingboyscenter.org.
  • For questions regarding donations, contact: Patricia Parks, president Family Unity International 12750 Stephen Place  Elm Grove, WI 53122 (262) 797-8988

Down the road from the family’s home is their brickmaking business, something in which all family members are involved. Brickmaking is a long process which begins with mixing mud and sawdust, framing the rectangular bricks and, once enough are created, firing them in a large oven. Each brick will bring the family 13 cents.

The finished pile of bricks is attractive to thieves, said Graciela, so family members take turns standing guard at the brickyard over night to make sure none are stolen.

Luis, the family’s chief brickmaker, never finished grade school, according to Madre Cindy, “so the easiest thing to do while waiting for the bricks to dry, fire or be purchased was to drink.”

But the center, she said, has given him and his family a new purpose in life.

“He hurries down to the center each day for classes so he does not have time to be idle,” said Madre Cindy.

In order to enroll in the center, all members of the family must participate. Therefore, Karina, Maria, Efrain, Martha and Antonio are enrolled in school, Graciela and Luis are learning to read and write, and the baby, Luis, is enrolled in the day care.

“I didn’t even know how to read and write, now I can read and write and sign my name,” said Graciela in a video on the WBC website. “Now we are all learning.”

With the education they receive at the center, they eventually should be able to move from the small rental apartment on the rooftop to a place that will more easily accommodate their eight-member family.

While neat and tidy, the rooftop apartment made of concrete and bricks is accessed through narrow staircases and an open area walkway where visitors must duck beneath overhead wires. A large puddle of standing water is crossed with the help of a plank that serves as a bridge. The home has an open-air kitchen area and only one large bed for all the family members.

9-year-old is working family member

In addition to studying at the center, 9-year-old Efrain sells candy on the streets of Quito to help contribute to his family’s income. Work is one of the 10 values which help participants achieve the goals of the program – and children as young as 6 are expected to help their family through work.

“The WBC – A Family of Families serves the working children and their entire families. This characteristic makes our mission a unique agent for social change. The strength of a society depends on the welfare of the whole family.

All members of the families of the working children receive the benefits provided by the Family of Families and learn a technical profession. In this way they contribute to the elimination of unemployment, one of the determining factors of poverty,” according to a mission statement on the Working Boys’ Center website, www.workingboyscenter.org.

Requiring young boys to work on the streets shining shoes or selling candy concerns some who feel that children should not have to work, explained Fr. Halligan, known as Padre Juan, describing its philosophy to a group of visitors in mid-January.

Yet, his approach from the center’s beginning in 1964 is that work not only brings additional income to the family, but it brings self-esteem to those involved. When he was sent by his Jesuit order to minister in Quito, he was instructed to address the educational needs of the boys working on the streets shining shoes.

Is work exploiting children?

Barbara Vega, International Grants Manager of Crossroads International, a visitor to the Working Boys’ Center in January, admitted she was initially put off by the fact that young boys were put to work.

During an informational gathering for visitors on the spiritual journey, she said another program she visited has an opposite approach to children working.

“The other ministry had a different take on children working – that children should be in school. Actually, the U.S. in general has this philosophy. When I first heard of the idea that children work in Ecuador, I immediately thought of exploitation and it kind of startled me,” Vega told your Catholic Herald. “I thought that if children were working they were losing their childhood innocence.”

Yet, after visiting the center and seeing how its approach keeps the welfare of the children as its top priority, she has changed her understanding, she told your Catholic Herald in an email.

“But WBC told me that, most of the time in Ecuador the work does not rise to the level of exploitation,” said Vega. “It is usually just children helping their parents. Plus they are learning a work ethic and generally the economic situation is such that the families need it so it is an economic reality for them.”

She noted that working children are part of the culture of indigenous groups in Ecuador and it’s been so for many generations.

“I see now that WBC attempts to ‘meet the culture halfway’ so to speak. I realize that in international development, the most successful programs do just that. Instead of imposing a foreign culture on another, it is usually best to attempt to understand the culture and work within it.”

Vega added that her new appreciation for the WBC approach is why she changed her understanding and completely rewrote her write-up in a grant proposal she is writing for the center and other ministries.

‘We work with working children’

According to Padre Juan, many of the youngsters entering the center are already working. It’s common for poor Ecuadorian families to send their children to the streets selling candy or trinkets or shining shoes. What changes for them when they enter the center, he explained, is the fact that they will attend school, and receive three meals daily, but their working hours will be limited to three half days and perhaps weekend hours.

“We don’t make children work,” noted Sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary Miguel Conway, cofounder of the center, known as Madre Miguel, “we work with working children.”

They stressed they see work as a value which gives the worker a sense of self worth.

Saving money also important

It’s not enough to just work, however, said Madre Miguel. It’s important that the worker save money so by the time the family graduates from the center, they are able to purchase a home of their own. At the entry to the center is the “banco” or bank, an area where members maintain savings accounts. They regularly must show center staff their bankbooks to prove that they are not only earning money, but saving it as well.

Posted on the door to the center is a short list of families who are not allowed back in until they meet this requirement.

“They are learning, yes you should work, it’s good you contribute to society but you should save money; you just don’t work to spend every penny you’ve got, you’ve to think of the future,” said Madre Miguel in a video on the WBC website.
An impact study of the Working Boys Center conducted in 2007 led by senior researcher Maria Augusta Calle titled, “42 Years Working Towards Human Dignity,” found “during interviews with graduates of all ages, saving and budgeting money was always discussed as one of the best and most valuable lessons learned.”

Families depend on boys’ income

The young boys’ contribution to the family income – about $3 a day, three days a week – in Efrain Cordova’s case might not sound like much by American standards, but it is a necessary source of income for the family. Working boys account for 85 percent of a family’s income, according to the WBC. While young boys work on the streets, young girls make jewelry or handsewn items which are for sale to visitors at both centers.

Typically, when a child graduates from the center, he’ll have $500 to $1,000 to give him a start in life, according to Padre Juan.

Twelve-year-old John Cuaspud and his sister, Diana, 14, hope that’s exactly where they’ll be a few years from now. The Cuaspud Tipaz family entered the center last September sometime after Ana Tipaz’s husband left her and the couple’s
five children. Their tiny home with a corrugated tin roof and concrete walls is on a hill littered with broken glass and garbage.

To support the family, Ana raises pigs; she also receives $35 a month from an older son who sends money back to his mother. The smile splitting Ana’s face as she showed visitors her pigs reflected pride in her efforts. A grown pig will sell for $750, but raising the pig takes hard work and food.

John, the sixth grader, goes through the garbage regularly to find recyclable plastic, as well as to find garbage to feed the pigs they are raising, according to Madre Cindy. Like many other homes of center members, this one also doesn’t have running water or a bathroom.

It’s a similar story for the Singo Cruz Toctaguano family who are living in the home of mom, Angelica’s father. Angelica, 29, lives with her new husband, Segundo Toctaguano, father of her youngest child, Ronny, age 2. Her other children, Jonathon Singo, 12; Erika Singo, 10, Josselyn Singo, 7, and Vinicio Singo, 5, share the three-room house with a refrigerator that works some of the time, televisions that don’t work at all and no bathroom.

Faith, evident by the image of the Last Supper hanging on the kitchen wall, and hard work will be the key to a new life for the family, they hope. Segundo works in construction and 12-year-old Jonathon contributes to the family income by selling candy.

Members of the center since last September, the children are enrolled in school and Angelica and Segundo are also studying. They hope to save enough to purchase land for their own home, said Madre Cindy.
Most graduates gainfully employed

If they reach their goals, which is likely based on the 2007 study which showed that 95 percent of men and 84 percent of women who graduated from the WBC are working, they will join the more than 6,000 families, some 30,000 plus people, who have moved from poverty to prosperity in the nearly 50 years of the WBC existence.

Some graduates, like Piedad Perdomo (1992), own their own beauty salon, while Franklin Rey (1998) runs the baking program at the WBC, runs his own bakery and travels throughout Ecuador and South America sharing baking knowledge acquired at the WBC.

Carlos Gomez, one of the original shoeshine boys who lived in the center?s first site, an attic space atop Gonzaga Jesuit High School, next to the ornate La Compañia Church in Quito, is a WBC director who recently completed his master?s degree in children?s rights at Salesian University.

Son of a shoemaker, Gomez remembers shining shoes in Quito’s main plaza in 1964 when a friend told him about the WBC.
Initially rebellious, he didn’t like studying and escaped back to the plaza with his buddies.

“My life did not have much direction when I came to the center,” he said, noting he didn’t see much of a future for himself. “But once I got to know Padre (Juan) and Madre (Miguel) they opened my world and showed me how to live in a way where I could change.”

At the center, he gained a technical education, learned to be a mechanic and in 1980 joined the team that heads the center.

“Feeling affection is the basis for changing attitudes and taking charge of your own life; for me, this is what makes the Working Boys’ Center different. The love, the respect and the solidarity, along with the discipline and the rules, are values that are promoted here every day,” Gomez is quoted on the WBC website.

More recent graduates, Maria Cruz, 20, and Jessica Simbaña, 16, were working in the beauty salon on center grounds. They completed the center’s beauty school program and work in the salon that offers everything from manicures ($3), pedicures ($5) to cuts ($4) coloring ($12 or $14), massages ($20) and facials ($10). Yet, Simbaña doesn’t plan for a career as a beautician. Now attending her first year of “colegio” – the American equivalent to high school – she’d like to be a lawyer.

According to the 2007 study, 83 percent of WBC graduates age 15 to 18; 75 percent ages 19 to 25 and 58 percent age 26 to 35 continue their studies after leaving WBC.

Approach to poverty unique

Their approach to poverty is unique, Padre Juan and Madre Miguel know. They do not view their work as charity, rather as a way to help people help themselves.

“Welfare programs destroy incentive and clearly are not the answer,” said Madre Miguel.

“The day they come in we say to them, this is not a charity program. This is a decision you have to make. Are you going to take charge of your life or are you going to expect people to be giving you charity all your life, a handout to make you dependent on them,” said Madre Miguel in a video on the WBC website. “No, you can do it, you can make it.”

The center attacks poverty as a spiritual problem, not an economic one, said Madre Cindy, who arrived in 1974 as a Peace Corps volunteer and was inspired to enter the BVM order after seeing the work of Madre Miguel.

“People need to have some self esteem, and through our educational programs, they do have self esteem and can get themselves out of poverty and help others get out of poverty,” she said.