Columban Sr. Young Mi Choi lives and works in the parish of Cristo Liberador, one of twelve parishes which comprise the district of San Juan de Lurigancho in the eastern part of Lima in the foothills of the Andes. It is the most populated district in all Latin America, with a population of over one million people. Most of the people who live there have come as migrants from other parts of Peru over the last 25 to 30 years.
In our parish we have a population of about 130,000 people. Those who live in the valleys have basic services and conditions have improved greatly over the years. However, there are still thousands of people living on the cerros (hills) in precarious dwellings who do not yet have running water or basic services.
We have started a number of projects to help educate the migrant population in the area. One is a small preschool for 3- to 5- year-olds, with a room for special children. Many are children of very young single mothers who have very little education themselves. We saw this project as a way of giving basic formation to these children so that they could have more options for life and a better future. We also wanted to have something for special children because there are no services for them in our area. My own background is in Montessori and special education. We have about 80 children in the school. They come around 8:30 a.m. and are with us until 3:30 p.m. This is to give the mothers opportunity to work as many do in the local market and other areas. We provide breakfast, dinner and a snack for the children before they leave in the afternoon.
Three years ago, a little girl named Sandra came to our school. Her mother, a widow with three children who sold pieces of charcoal in the market, asked me with tears in her eyes if I could take her because Sandra had a hearing problem and almost caused a serious car accident that day as she was unable to communicate with anyone. Sandra stayed with us for three years. We worked with her on her own and at other times she joined the normal children for classes. From being wild and without even minimal education, she has become a caring, confident and beautiful child who has become an example to the other children in her class. The director of the local elementary school says “When I see Sandra blossoming in our school and playing with normal children I see the value of inclusive education.” Our task is to maintain the quality of our educational program, to prepare our teachers and to provide education for the parents. We get no government assistance whatever for running this school.
Our second project is in Cristo Rey at one end of our parish where the people live on a series of high hills in extremely poor living conditions with huge social problems of alcohol abuse and family violence. The alcohol abuse and domestic violence coupled with a lack of education, very few adults have completed high school, means that education is not a priority for the children. For example Susana, age 11, is still struggling to read and write because the parents ask her to mind her four younger siblings at home instead of going to school. She asked me to convince her parents to allow her to come to our educational program.
Last year we began an educational program as an outreach from our school in this deprived area. The general idea was to build up the community. I could see from our school that the problem was where the children were coming from, and I felt that in Cristo Rey we could help the community beginning with children and women. With our teachers and others volunteering, we began workshops in the afternoons with children of different age levels, helping them with their reading and writing skills. On Saturdays we have handicraft and drama workshops for the children, and a program for women with a psychologist and social worker. This year we hope to have a three pronged educational program for adults – development of practical life skills, human development, and leadership in the community and chapel so that they can take responsibility for their lives, and also continue the work with the children.