With physical education, leaders aim to plant seeds of hope in Argentina's shanty towns
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With physical education, leaders aim to plant seeds of hope in Argentina's shanty towns

How do you spark a flame of change and progress within an impoverished and extremely underdeveloped community that, according to some working class Argentines, has been crippled by an overwhelming amount of government assistance? How do you give families living in Argentina’s version of favelas the tools they need to emerge from the slums and be active, independent, self-sustaining citizens?

There are more than enough theories and stories of failed projects to go around, but many firmly believe in the possibility of creating positive change in these marginalized communities. One organization has directed its attention toward the adolescent residents of the shanty towns, seeing them as one of the most promising allies and sources for forward progress.

Bringing sports to the villa miseria

Argentina’s shanty towns, colloquially called villa miserias, are plots of unoccupied land that poor families have illegally claimed as their neighborhoods. These communities have high levels of crime, domestic abuse and drug abuse, and little focus on education, health care and sanitary codes. Most lack basic resources like access to clean water or proper plumbing.

These plots of haphazard, poorly constructed houses sectioned off from metropolitan cities uncover the skeleton of a third world country in a republic that otherwise wears the face of a modern and socially progressive country.

In an effort to provide residents with access to resources that might otherwise be out of reach, the local Department of Social Development has introduced a program, through the Secretaría de Deportes (Secretary of Athletics), that employs specialists to work with adolescents in shanty towns.

Juan Manuel Cañadas is one of these employees. He is a physical education teacher from Saenz Peña, a small town right outside of the capital of Buenos Aires. Cañadas, who works in Villa 31 and Villa 20, is one of many facilitators who leads a group of adolescents between the ages of 18-24 through a program charted by the Secretary of Athletics called ‘Líderes Deportivos Comunitarios’ (Community Sports Leaders).

“It’s a six-month course that encourages the kids in the villas to come and participate in the sports activities we organize,” says Cañadas. “We teach them how to coordinate physical activities and excel in athletics which in turn gives them an opportunity to take on leadership roles and also gives them a chance to socially interact in groups in a positive way.”

Juan Manuel Cañadas. Photo: Juan Manuel Cañadas

Juan Manuel Cañadas. Photo: Juan Manuel Cañadas

Cañadas says the facilitators in Villa 31 and 20 quickly recognized that the majority of youth didn’t know how to express themselves to others nor how to interact with diverse groups of people. They haven’t been encouraged to finish school, seek higher education, nor find work outside of the villas in order to escape poverty.

“It’s clear that they aren’t sure about themselves and don’t know how to change their situation, so we help them discover self-confidence and self-awareness,” he says. “We use athletics as a means to mentor them, to help them become more social, more active, and show them a range of possibilities to leave the villas by either going to school or getting a job.”

Looking forward

The groups meet regularly in the heart of the villas to play handball or soccer, and facilitators use these moments to start a dialogue with youth about their future.

Leaders put particular emphasis on encouraging youth to pursue opportunities in higher education, higher education options are free in Argentina, leaders try to prepare youth to enter institutions and change their involvement in the community.

“We work with the educational system so they don’t exercise prejudice towards our kids. In fact, they support those who come from the villas to seek higher education.”

The youth receive a stipend from the government for participating, giving them an extra incentive to get involved in the program. Still, the financial benefits aren’t always enough to keep attendance up – Cañadas began with about 25 youth in his group, but enrollment has since dropped to around 10, which he says was expected.

“Some people sign up and never come, or sign up and think ‘Oh, sports! How cool.’ They come to a few gatherings and then lose interest. Some also sign up only to receive the money.”

If a former participant wants to rejoin, the group votes to decide whether the absent member should be allowed to come back. Rather than trying to keep people out, this process gives these adolescents an opportunity to exercise collective decision-making and recognize the value of the program, according to Cañadas.

A community event in the villa. Photo:  Juan Manuel Cañadas

A community event in the villa. Photo: Juan Manuel Cañadas

Reaching out

Though the population in the villas is rising, the resources needed to meet the growing needs have not increased. Through conversations with youth, Cañadas and his colleagues have become aware of issues regarding domestic abuse, violent acts and drug use. Recently, the group hosted a workshop after leaders found out that a participant had attempted suicide.

When troubling cases surface, the facilitators work with lawyers and government specialists who handle domestic abuse or suicide cases.

“We begin by creating an environment for [the youth] to feel comfortable, opening the conversation when they come to us, and then we submit the case to professionals for them to come in and help,” says Cañadas.

The leaders use the same strategies for less serious conversations as well. If a participant shows interest in a particular sport or activity, facilitators contact specialists in the Secretary of Athletics department and try to connect them with other clubs or organizations in the city.

Some members of the group with their homemade bowling pins. Photo:  Juan Manuel Cañadas

Some members of the group with their homemade bowling pins. Photo: Juan Manuel Cañadas

Plenty of challenges

In addition to their exclusion from education and job opportunities, the youth of the villa miserias face other challenges in their environment.

One issue, notes Cañadas, is the high teen pregnancy rate. Several of the girls in their groups are either pregnant or already have children – while they usually don’t participate in the athletic activities, they are still encouraged to attend.

Another daily reality is the issue of security and crime.The villas can be dangerous, but facilitators don’t feel threatened. Cañadas says he feels safe and welcome in the community.

“They know we are there to help their sons and daughters transition into life outside of the villa, giving them more opportunities to live above the poverty line.”

Group leaders and participants also have to deal with unexpected distractions and interruptions, ranging from personal issues to neighborhood riots. In August, Cañadas’ group planned a fair to celebrate Children’s Day, preparing everything from sports stations manned by the youth participants to creating bowling pins made from recycled soda bottles. The event was sidetracked, however, when authorities demolished a new villa adjacent to Villa 20, setting off demonstrations throughout the neighborhood

As Cañadas sees it, these types of distractions are inevitable, and the group has simply learned to work around them.