No one can deny that America’s poor and minority youth face distinct challenges in obtaining gainful employment and building the skills that lead to prosperity. Nonetheless, our nation has made tremendous strides over the past several decades. After-school programs, high school equivalency exams, and technical training—much of it funded by foundations—all hold out at least the possibility of a decent living and advancement for America’s poorest youths.
To see how far we’ve come, it helps to compare our admittedly imperfect system to the challenges faced by poor youths overseas. Father Patrick McGillicuddy, an Irish Catholic priest (Gaelic lilt included) working in Brazil, lives with these challenges every day.
Since 1993, McGillicuddy has run Projeto Perpétuo Socorro (the Perpetual Help Project) in the seaside city of Curitiba. The project provides hot meals, drug and alcohol counseling, and help with food and housing to the poor of this city of a million-and-a-half inhabitants.
In carrying out this work, McGillicuddy began to focus on the needs of the poor and homeless youth of the city. In Brazil, there are few facilities for integrating homeless youths in their teens and twenties into society. Often illiterate, without jobs, families, or education, these young people frequently become involved in crime and drugs, have disastrous run-ins with local police, or die on the streets.
To help this vulnerable population, McGillicuddy founded the Sarnelli Community, named after the founder of the Redemptorist religious order to which McGillicuddy belongs, Blessed Gennaro Maria Sarnelli. The community provides a homelike atmosphere, education and skills training, and occasionally religious instruction to young men from the streets aged 18 to 27. Run out of an old convent that was purchased with a US$153,000 donation from HSBC, an international banking and financial services firm, the home has space for 15-20 young men. McGillicuddy and two other clergy run the home with the help of several teachers and volunteers.
The young men at Perpetual Hope spend nine-and-a-half hours a day in study and share chores for the upkeep of the house. McGillicuddy has arranged for the classes to be recognized through a local adult education program so that the men can earn a high school diploma. This year, Perpetual Help will “graduate” nine students and already has been forced to turn young men away.
Even more important is the stable, loving atmosphere at the home, what McGillicuddy calls a “holistic” approach to educating the young men both in mind and in spirit. “Many of these men have no experience of family life,” says McGillicuddy, and they are locked out of a decent living by the near total lack of either private or public support for the poor in Brazil. In fact, the priest says he has received death threats and abuse from local politicians and residents who believe he is housing criminals and vagrants.
That opposition has made it a constant struggle to raise needed funds. “There is really no private foundation sector in Brazil, like in the United States, and no tradition of charitable giving,” he says. “God has provided us just enough to keep going, but it’s always a struggle.”
One of his charitable “angels” is HSBC, which not only bought the convent that houses the project, but also provides regular operating funding of $2,800 a month and purchased a small farm outside the city that the priest hopes to turn into a larger facility that will house more residents. The chairman of HSBC, Sir John Bond, also personally gave £25,000 to help purchase the farm on which McGillicuddy hopes to build a new facility with more classrooms, sports fields, and living space for 65 students. The project accepts donations through the East Coast provincial house of the Redemptorists in New York City, available at (718) 833-1900.
While the program is not specifically religious (though a number of the men do take religious instruction from McGillicuddy and his colleagues), he nonetheless sees his mission in moral terms. “The prospects for these lads are terrible,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is give hope to the hopeless, and you can only do it one person at a time.”