São Paulo: engineers among the shacks

Sumaré is the name of a center for university students in São Paulo. Among other activities, it sponsors a volunteer project in the St. Catherine favela, one of the poorest slums in the metropolitan area. The aim of this project is to redo the insecure electrical installations currently reaching some huts

The project is the brain child of Rodrigo, a civil engineering student at the University of São Paulo and a resident at Sumaré. Work began in August 2000, dedicating Saturday mornings to the project.

The slum dwellings are often assembled with discarded pieces of wood and covered with sheets of plastic or tin cans. The favelados themselves strung and connected bits and pieces of wire to bring electricity to their humble homes, and the danger of fires from short circuits is always present.

Most of the volunteers study engineering at São Paulo University. Diogo studies control systems and automation; Denis and Nilton are studying to become electrical engineers; while Eric is a telecommunications student. Flavio, who studies computer engineering, travels almost 70 miles each Saturday to reach the project area. Supervising the project are three professional engineers: Vinicius, a computer engineer; Matheus, who works in telecommunications; and Charles Vladimir, lieutenant in the army and electrical engineer.

On the job

For each visit the volunteers break into two- or three-man teams, each working on a single shack, starting with those most in need. Their first visit was to a shack where Helena lived with her husband and five children. At first she was quite reserved, mistaking them for undercover police. But soon, at Christmas, she sent each one a different handmade card, thanking them for what they were doing for her family and the other favelados.

The gratitude of the poor is very moving to see. Ivone, mother of three, lost her job and shack because of a fire, and has been abandoned by her husband. Grateful for the help she is receiving, she offers the young men cups of cafezinho (thick coffee), even if she has to skip her next meal.

The first step is to examine the existing electrical installation in each shack, seeking to reduce immediate hazards. Then an independent new connection is installed and the makeshift wiring is removed. So no home is ever without light. Only new materials are used, requested and contributed during the week from stores and wholesalers near the slums. It generally takes four weekly visits to complete each job and get rid of the provisional hook-up.

Obviously this joint effort benefits slum families, but also the students, whose generosity and social concern are spurred by this contact. “I know I’ve benefited more than what I’ve contributed in time and knowledge,” say one of the future engineers.

Fostering a spirit of service

Sumaré volunteers also help to teach classes in math and Portuguese to the favela’s students, inadequately served by state-run schools. In addition, medical students from Sumaré are setting up a walk-in clinic to diagnose and serve basic needs of the people in the slum district.

Many of the volunteers also take part in short courses organized by Sumaré in such areas as law, sociology, information technology and humanities. Sumaré also offers classes and talks aimed at helping the young men grow in both human and Christian dimensions.

Of especial recent interest is a seminar on leadership and professional excellence. Intended to spur social and professional responsibility among university students, the seminar has attracted academic and business notables as speakers. These include Jacques Marcovich, rector of São Paulo University, and noted jurist and professor Ives Gandra da Silva Martins. Another conference was given by Mauricio Botelho, CEO of Brazil’s largest aircraft builder.

The efforts to improve the life of the poor and the Christian formation given to the university students has led to new volunteers offering their services. Some of these have already begun working in the favela of Santana de Parnaíba, some 40 kilometers from São Paulo.

Romana, n. 32, January-June 2001, p. 86-87.

Send to friend