Suelen and Her Family: A Brazil Child Health Success Story
By David J. Olson
NOVA IGUAÇU, Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil — In 2012, Suelen hit rock bottom. She was living in extreme poverty with her husband and young son in a dilapidated house with a roof that was leaking water. While she was pregnant with her second child, her husband left her. When that child, Ana Luiza, was born, she was sick with pneumonia and asthma.
Suelen was at her wit’s end. Every day was a struggle. She made a living selling empanadas out of a canvas tent here in this city of 800,000 about 40 minutes from downtown Rio de Janeiro. “I was working all the time every day just to pay for food for the next day,” said Suelen. “I didn’t think about the future, just how I was going to eat tomorrow.”
Today, the situation of the family is the reverse of what it was five years ago. The health and wealth of the family is thriving. They have a highly successful food truck (that is expanding to home delivery). The children are going to good schools. And Suelen is going to law school so she can defend the rights of other black women who are being oppressed.
The moment when it all turned around for Suelen was during one of her daughter’s visits to Lagoa Federal Hospital in Rio, when she came into contact with Associação Saúde Crianća (Child Health Association), a social organization that has improved the lives of 70,000 people in the poorest families in Brazil since it was founded in 1991. It has been named one of the best NGOs in Brazil, and one of the 500 best NGOs in the world.
Through 12 hospitals in Brazil, Saùde Criança identifies unhealthy children and their families living below the poverty line. They are interviewed and assessed. Based on this information, a family action plan is developed with objectives and indicators in five major areas – health, citizenship, housing, education and family income. The program offers direct assistance, technical support, professional training and citizenship support (with lawyers assisting with issues such as obtaining identity cards, divorces, government benefits, etc.).
Every month, the mothers come to Saùde Criança’s offices for evaluations to check on the progress of the families against their plans. Saùde Criança assists the families for around two years, the amount of time deemed necessary to solve the families’ major problems and to set them on a sustainable path. Sometimes, such as in the case of Suelen, more time is needed.
Saùde Criança has diversified funding that doesn’t permit it to become too dependent on one or two donors. About 54 percent of its funding comes from Brazilian and international companies such as Praxair Foundation, Johnson & Johnson and Repsol Sinopec Brasil as well as social entrepreneur organizations like Ashoka, the Skoll Foundation and Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. The other 46 percent comes from individual donations.
That encounter at Lagoa Hospital changed everything for Suelen and her family. Her husband Ricardo came back and has become an important part of the family. Ana Luiza’s health problems have been stabilized.
The family’s desperate financial situation has turned around. Suelen took Saúde Criança’s cooking course and bought a trailer, which she used to sell her food close to home. Later, with the help of Saúde Criança, she upgraded to a food truck. Recently, Suelen and Ricardo bought a motorcycle to initiate home food deliveries. She benefited from training in bookkeeping and marketing.
Saúde Criança’s housing program repaired the leaking roof, which was contributing to Ana Luiza’s poor health. With help from the family and their relatives, a second floor was added with one bedroom for the parents and one for the children (previously, the parents had been sleeping in the living room, with the children next to them on a mattress on the floor).
“The most important thing to me is that my daughter’s health has stabilized,” says Suelen. “Today I can live and stand on my own two feet, because Ana made it.”
They now have a beautiful house and appear to have arrived in the middle class. But when I asked them if they feel middle class, they laughed and said “No, we want to accomplish more.” They have escaped extreme poverty, they say, but are still poor. For one thing, they want to own their own home.
Suelen and Ana Luiza graduated from Saúde Crianca earlier this year so the family is now on their own. Ana Luiza attends the Instituto Nacional Santo Antônio, one of the best schools in Nova Iguaçu, where she has a 100% scholarship.
Even though the food truck is a huge success and provides a good income for the family, Suelen wanted more. So she applied, and was accepted, into law school, with a 70% scholarship.
“Much of my motivation comes from the fact that as a black woman in Brazil, I have been suffering from prejudice all of my life,” she says. “And I have seen black friends suffering prejudice and who fought back, because they had the knowledge. I wanted to do this, too, because I am a black woman with black children and I want a better world for them.”
Though the family is prospering, their new lifestyle demands a lot of Suelen and Ricardo. They have to get up early to get the children off to school. Then they are preparing the food truck and operating it from early evening until early in the morning. They get to bed at 3 am, and then get up and start all over again. Suelen goes to law school four days a week.
Luis Ricardo, the 10-year-old son, says that other people can’t believe how hard they all work to achieve their new-found success. They tell him their family are brave fighters.