Health and Empowerment Mission

Health and Empowerment Mission

Barb de Souza – Brazil

As I sit here on this beautiful fall day when the weather is perfect in temperature and the threat of the rainy season that can be so tragic, is over, I have music all around me with the sounds of the birds chirping, the monkeys making their beeping sounds, and a soft breeze rustling the leaves, and I am reminded of the beauty of nature, God’s magnificent creation gift for which we are called to be the caretakers.

Barb de Souza – Brazil

As I sit here on this beautiful fall day when the weather is perfect in temperature and the threat of the rainy season that can be so tragic, is over, I have music all around me with the sounds of the birds chirping, the monkeys making their beeping sounds, and a soft breeze rustling the leaves, and I am reminded of the beauty of nature, God’s magnificent creation gift for which we are called to be the caretakers.

Since our last newsletter, we have had victories as well as our continued frustrations. The political situation in Rio de Janeiro continues to be chaotic and the public health system at its worst. We continue to be without adequate medication but are able to supply our patients with donations from the wonderful and generous churches in the USA. However, as this is an election year, we did receive some medications in late March, and our hopes are that because of the political situation of an election year, we will receive more medicines.

We have become so accustomed to this situation that, though frustrating, challenges us in our efforts at disease prevention. We still struggle with public authorities for drinkable water and an adequate sewer system, which would enable us to be far more effective in our efforts for better health conditions of this shantytown community.

BUT our victories are far greater and this newsletter is to tell you about them. In February, I was called by the City Public Health System to inform me that our Association’s request for another (3rd) health team would be granted and perhaps even a 4th health team (we now have 2). And we were told that this was granted because the Family Health Program of our NGO Association is the most effective in this city! This is due to the fantastic women health workers we have and the harmony and dedication of our health teams as they serve this community.

I remind you that each health team consists of a doctor, nurse, 2 nurse’s assistants, and 6 health educators. Each health team is to serve 1000 families, though our health teams serve some 1500 families. Two new health teams would enable us to serve another 2000 families or 10,000 to 15,000 people! Each health educator must visit 200 assigned families per month plus the educative groups we are all involved in such as: family planning, teen age mothers, hypertension and diabetes, pregnant women, infants up to 12 moths and another group of 13 to 24 months, vaccinations, and other special disease educational programs.

We were thrilled but then panic set in. We do not have space in our 2 buildings for 2 more teams plus a much-needed dental team, which would also be supplied in this new contract. We had purchased the land and hut behind us as I informed you in the last newsletter, but had not the funds to build. However, the Brasilian Fund came to our rescue at least for us to begin. We must have this building ready by mid June when the renewed contract with the city Health Dept. will be signed and the new teams hired by our Association.

We have an engineer and lawyer donating their time to help us with plans and the legal aspects, both part of our Board of Directors. The building will have 3 floors. The first floor will house our physical therapy program, the only one in the area; it is not supported by the city Health Dept. although we hope that once we build and hire another Physical Therapist, we will be approved. Until then we count on a project approved by the Mission Committee of the 1st Congregational Church in River Falls, WI.

The second floor will house the dental team, consultation rooms for the doctor and nurse, weighing room, bathroom, file and workroom for the health educators. The third floor will house the fourth team, which may not arrive until the end of the year, plus a meeting room. This is a big endeavor, but will mean so much to the shantytown.

The Family Health program theory is, for me, the answer for third world countries or for that matter any country where the public health system cannot answer the demands of the poorer population. Not knowing that this type of theory would ever be adopted, the Course for the training of Community Health Educators that began in São Paulo in the 80s, in an effort to empower women through health education, fits right in. Those women began to work in their communities educating others about their bodies and health care. Preventive medicine! When the Family Health Program began to be implemented in Rio, we recognized its value as it fell within the training course’s ideals. Thus the course was accepted by the city public health system.

Education, through health or other emphasis, is the answer to self-esteem and empowerment. Certainly my experience with these women we’ve trained over the years has proved this. It is still difficult for poor women to be educated, that is, to fulfill their dreams for higher education for they must work to help support their families and do not have adequate time or money for college. But there are victories, and we had one that I want to tell you about in this newsletter.

Kelly Araújo was a 16-year-old girl when she became a student of the 1st Course for the training of Community Health Educators I taught in Rio. It was given in a shantytown near our home, the Anil Community. This Course began in 1994, and Kelly was still in grammar school at the time. Surely I never dreamed that she would go as far as she did. She was an extremely interested student; in spite of being so much younger for most of the rest of the class were already mothers or grandmothers. Her family was poor and her father an alcoholic who could not keep a job. We helped her finish high school by purchasing books and materials, and then she became one of our health educators when we signed our first contract in 1999 with the city. With donations from the Brasilian fund we were able to pay for her to study to become a nurse’s assistant, giving her even more self-esteem and determination. .

Kelly continued to work in our clinic but she had greater dreams; she wanted to be a full-fledged nurse. She tried public school entrance exams but was never classified; as the demand is greater than the universities can handle and the public school system is poor, so poor students cannot compete with private schools students’ performances. But her dream continued. It was made more difficult for at that time there were no colleges for nursing that held classes at night and weekends so Kelly would have to stop working to go to college.

As I watched her mature and admired her persistence, I had a dream too, how could I help Kelly go to a private nursing college? I found two persons who believe as I do that education is the road to liberation for women. My dear seminary sister, Rev. Lois Kitto and a fantastic couple Ken and Jean Lutterman, whom I had met on itineration many years ago, volunteered to help pay for her education. Ken Lutterman died during the years that Kelly was studying but left some money in his will for her education. She also became one of the teachers of our Community Health Educator’s Course to implement her family’s income. God puts people in the right place at the right time.

In January of this year, 2006, I was present at Kelly’s college graduation. She received honors and her senior thesis won first place. My pride and joy student’s thesis was “Sexuality in a Macho Society, Women’s Sexual Rights.” Needless to say, I shed many tears of joy and pride. And as of April 1st Kelly has been hired as a nurse in our Family Health Program.

There are others, too, who work in the clinic, who have been with us from the beginning, and were my students, finished grammar and high school nights and then studied to be nurse’s assistants. We would like to help them to fulfill their dreams to become nurses also. One is a 45-year-old woman, Maria Garcia, nurse’s assistant, who is the sole earner in her family, and Lena, both grandmothers. They are our next challenge for finding financial help.

We thank all of you for being our partners in this health and empowerment mission. We continue to be your hands in mission as we attempt to change and enrich lives.


Barb and Gus de Souza

Barb de Souza is a volunteer with the Institute of Religious Studies (ISER). She serves as an advisor for popular education and training in the areas of health and sexuality.