A partnership between Chiles government and a school established by Columbans means poor preschoolers receive childcare and education.
In our 56 years in Chile, we Columban missionaries have made a commitment to caring for the multitude of people who have come to Santiago from the countryside. As new housing developments have sprung up in Chile’s capital city, Columbans have moved with the people and took on the task of establishing new parishes for the archdiocese.
In 1991, Columban Father Aidan Larkin and I were sent to La Pintana, one of the poorest municipalities in Santiago, to establish the parish of San Esteban Martir (St. Stephen the Martyr).
We lived in Villa Colombia, a “progressive” housing development of one-room homes—four by six meters—built with the idea that families would add on additional rooms.
The social reality of these families is, to say the least, difficult: overcrowding, inadequate schooling, malnutrition, family violence, lack of privacy, emotional problems, addictions, job instability and delinquency.
It quickly became obvious to us that the lack of adequate living space was a major problem for families in our new parish. How could a child study in the same room where his or her mother cooked, the smaller children played and the father watched television?
To help, we started the Center for Human Education to create a space where children and adults could study and develop skills. With the help of our Columban benefactors, we built a fine center with adequate space for a library and activities, such as training courses for adults, drug prevention programs and summer camps.
After 10 years, I handed over my director’s role to Sr. Neli Armas, a Dominican Sister. A committee of lay people appointed by the archdiocese advises her and helps run the center’s activities.
A Difficult Social Reality.
In Villa Colombia, 40 percent of families are headed by single parents, overwhelmingly women. More and more, the face of poverty in Chile is a mother struggling alone to raise her children. Today, most children in Chile are born outside of marriage, and single mothers must work to provide for the family as well as care for their children.
These women are usually unskilled, so they work as maids for wealthy families or by cleaning offices. Because they leave home early in the day, traveling long distances to their jobs, their young children are left in the care of the older siblings or with neighbors of good will.
Many of these mothers are teen-agers who either abandon school to care for their children or leave them with the children’s grandparents.
To address this social reality, the Center for Human Education set up a jardin infantile (kindergarten), for the mothers of Villa Colombia and similar housing developments. The site next to the center was owned by nonprofit organization that “lent” part of the site to the kindergarten.
In the beginning, wood prefab rooms were built for the kindergarten. It was a makeshift affair, but it did help 20 mothers care for and educate their children.
Since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, Chile has invested heavily in improving education, because education is seen as the principal way out of the cycle of poverty.
As a result, the government implemented basic requirements for schools, and our kindergarten did not meet the new standards. We thought that we would have to close it.
Parents of our students, however, begged us to keep our school open. Government officials told us they would pay our staff’s salaries if we built a decent school.
Our Columban benefactors came to the rescue. Thanks to their generosity, the new kindergarten of Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) was built to care for 40 preschool children.
When Michele Bachelet became the first woman president of Chile in 2006, she promised to set up 800 new childcare centers during her first year. Because of the center’s success with the kindergarten, we were approached by a government agency who agreed to build new facilities and pay our staff if we agreed to run the childcare center for children ages 6 months to 2 years. We accepted the proposal.
Today, 52 children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years are cared for in the Sagrada Familia kindergarten and childcare center. They are cared for, fed and given the stimulation and education they need.
The center does not have to worry about paying the professional staff now, but Sr. Neli still struggles each month to pay the bills: water, light, gas, education materials and building repairs.
So far, the Holy Family has blessed this initiative, and we continue to pray that Jesus, Mary and Joseph will help to keep it going.
Columban Father Mike Hoban from New York City was ordained in 1970 and has spent most of his ordained life in Chile.