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Breaking the Bonds of Poverty

Education is Key

By Sr. Young Mi Choi

My name is Sr. Young Mi Choi, and I live and work in the parish of Cristo Liberador, (Christ the Liberator), one of twelve parishes which comprise the district of San Juan de Lurigancho in the eastern part of Lima, Peru, in the foothills of the Andes. It is one of the most densely populated districts in all Latin America, with a population of over one million people. Most of the people who live here have come as migrants seeking a better life from rural and mountainous areas over the last 25 to 30 years.

Sr. Young Mi and friend

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 in precarious dwellings on the hills who do not yet have running water or basic services.

We have started a number of projects to help educate the migrant population in this area. One is a small preschool for three to five year-olds, with a room for children with special needs. 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. Each morning they arrive around 8:30 and are with us until 3:30 pm. This gives the mothers the 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, sold pieces of charcoal in the market. She asked me with tears in her eyes if I could take Sandra because she had a hearing problem. Sandra had almost caused a serious car accident that day because she could not communicate with anyone.

Sandra stayed with us for three years. We worked with her on her own, and at other times she joined the other children for classes. From being uncontrollable and without even minimal education she has become a caring, confident and beautiful child and is 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 the 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 whatsoever for running this school. 

Our second project is in the Cristo Rey area 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 their children. For example Susana, age 11, is still struggling to read and write because her 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.

Preeschool participants
Preschool participants

Last year we began an educational program in this deprived area as an outreach from our school. The general idea was to build up the community there beginning with the women and children.

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 threepronged educational program for adult development of practical life skills, human development and leadership in the community and chapel, so that they can take responsibility for their lives. We will also continue the work with the children.

Korean Columban Sr. Young Mi Choi lives and works in the Cristo Liberador parish in the poverty stricken outskirts of Lima, Peru