There are no easy solutions for those looking to solve the plight of street children in Puebla, Mexico. All the children are vulnerable to physical violence, to sexual or economic exploitation, to malnutrition, to contamination and to a myriad other problems that plague big city streets.
That's why the Church, through its humanitarian service, began three years ago providing financial and technical support to the Juconi street children foundation, a non-governmental, non-profit organization.
Juconi an acronym for a phrase, Junto Con Los Nios, that when translated means "together with the children" was started in 1989. Co-founder Sarah Tomas said organizers, all members of other churches, hoped to do something effective for street children and their families. Their goal was to help the children who enter the program permanently leave the streets and become self-reliant through education, rehabilitation and family involvement.
Statistics confirm they are succeeding. In the year 2000, Juconi educators worked with more than 480 street children, their high risk siblings and more than 180 parents; 84 percent of those children completed the program and left the streets.
LDS Family Services counselor Larue Crockett witnessed first hand the work that helped many of those children, volunteering more than three months in Mexico last summer. His visit was the first time a representative from a charitable donor organization has spent a substantial amount of time studying and evaluating Juconi's program, said Ms. Tomas.
"You can't get an idea of our work in two or three days," she said. "He stayed and he stayed and he lived through it. He got to know children. He got to know educators. He got to understand the daily problems."
Along with his wife, LeBurta, who worked with the Juconi project for one month, Brother Crockett saw the devastating lives of street children. "Many lives are ruined or literally taken in the streets," said the director of the Snowflake, Ariz., Family Services Agency.
During his stay, Brother Crockett counseled many of those children and offered workshops for their teachers.
He visited a juvenile correctional facility, where he met children who had participated in criminal activity. He visited a bus station, where little boys were sleeping under shrubs or benches. He visited a flea-infected home where a single mother was raising many children; the family's older children worked on the streets.
Church leaders asked Brother Crockett to evaluate and assist the Juconi program which had a reputation among local Church leaders as being effective. His wife started a music class in the Juconi school. Together they participated in what Juconi administrators called "Operation Friendship."
Program workers go out of the street and meet street children. They play games with them and built bridges of trust. They teach them to read and write. Then, ultimately, they determine which children could succeed in the Juconi program.
Ms. Tomas said children are selected for the program who have been on the street a short time, who do not have serious drug or emotional problems. Those recruited for the program must be ready for a change. They must be extremely motivated.
"The children are incredible, even those with no education and no family support." Brother Crockett said. "They are like sponges eager for any crumb of attention or education. I never saw any resistance toward the education they were receiving."
LDS Family Services and Humanitarian Service are now looking at assisting other programs that benefit street children such as the Juconi project in Ecuador. They are also evaluating how missionary couples may help in different locations or if the Church may eventually want to replicate a program like Juconi in other countries.
Brother Crockett explained that the effectiveness of such efforts can be measured in the life of one child, a little boy whose parents abandoned him as a 4-year-old. The child never even knew his last name. The youngster waited for days for his parents to return, before hitchhiking to Mexico City and eventually finding his way to Puebla. There he was arrested for stealing bread and entered reform school. That's where educators with Juconi found him.
Today, he has graduated from secondary school and completed a training program in computers. He plays the guitar.
His life is a stark contrast, said Brother Crockett, to the life of crime and begging he might have lived if he had lived on the streets.
He and the other estimated 100 million street children in the world today are a potentially tremendous resource for good, said Brother Crockett. However, he adds, "if they are not helped they could be just the opposite."
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