Light at the end of the tunnel;International

24th December 1999 at 00:00
A purpose-built residential school in Colombia is offering hundreds of children a chance of life outside the sewers many of them used to call home. Gabriella Gamini reports on its founder's crusading work.

Following a 10-year crusade scouring Bogota's rat-infested sewers to rescue the children who live there, Jaime Jaramillo has set up a small school in the Andean hills that will give hundreds of them a chance of an education.

A narrow, potholed track climbs up a steep hillside near the village of Subachoque, 20 miles outside the Colombian capital, and leads to the gates of the Papa Jaime school (named by the children after Se$or Jaramillo).

Its five small classrooms and three workshops were built this year. The building lies next to the home where for the past four years Jaime Jaramillo's Andes Children's Foundation has housed more than 150 children at a time, rescued from a life of drug abuse and sleeping rough in the alcoves of Bogota's sewage canals.

"Most of these children have a history of drug abuse and have suffered physical abuse. They can't just enter normal school," says the 47-year-old geophysicist who decided in the late 1980s to turn the earnings from his work with petroleum companies to helping some of the thousands of "sewage kids" in Bogota.

"Initially, we took children into the home and tried to prepare them for school outside. But it did not work, so we decided to set up our own school."

So far the charity has classroom space for 50 primary-aged children, but aims to enlarge the school in the new year and offer lessons for older children too.

"The children we care for have a wide range of educational needs," he says. "Some of them were already 12 or 13 by the time I got to them. Most have never been to school and have spent a large part of their lives hiding from death squads and killing hunger pangs by sniffing glue. Most need a drug detox programme before we slowly wean them into a schooling programme."

The curriculum at Papa Jaime school is unique. Mornings are spent trekking in the hillsides, observing nature, watching cows being milked and planting trees. After lunch, the children spend two hours learning maths, Spanish, history and geography, and the late afternoon is spent in workshops, where they are given classes in ceramics, woodwork, tapestry, and mechanics.

"Each child has to be followed individually by a psychologist," explains Pedro Fernandes, director of the foundation charity, started by Se$or Jaramillo, "and female health workers are always on hand to provide support that would normally come from the family."

The school attracts sporadic local donations but is mostly funded with money collected by the foundation's sister charity, Children of the Andes, based in London and Dublin.

"Papa Jaime's" crusade started in 1988, when he took a five-year-old girl who had been run over by a bus in central Bogota to a hospital. On being released from hospital the girl, dressed in rags, asked him to take her home.

"The little girl took me down into a dark labyrinth of stinking sewage tunnels. Eventually we came upon a damp cardboard box where several small children were sleeping among wet and dirty blankets," he recalls. "They told me they lived there because it was the only place where no one could hurt them. It is also the only place where they could shelter from the bitter cold."

At the time, many police and vigilantes believed they could get rid of petty crime by killing street children - a brutal version of zero tolerance. Although death-squad activity in the Colombian capital has dropped in recent years, the bodies of murdered street children still turn up on the city's pavements and rubbish dumps.

Since then Sr Jaramillo has mounted weekly patrols to take clothes and food to more than 5,000 children who are believed to live in the gutters. As a result he has developed close relationships with several children, especially the younger ones, and tries to convince them they should leave the sewers for a place in his home.

From 1988 to 1998, more than 7,815 children were housed by the Andes Children's Foundation. "A large percentage go back on to the streets, but we have placed many in jobs, or managed to return them to their families, or given them new homes and families abroad," says Sr Jaramillo.

The school aims to cut the numbers of street children who fail to overcome drug addiction and return to life in the sewers. "The Colombian state has shown it is unable to offer a path back to a normal life and schooling, so someone has to give them a future," says Sr Jaramillo. "By giving them a home and a school we can start forming adults able to go out into the world to make a living."

Children of the Andes will benefit from 'This is the Christmas Story', a choral work written by Peter Harrison, performed by 20,000 primary pupils at the end of term (see 'TES', December 10). To make a donation to the charity send cheques, made payable to 'Children of the Andes', to Children of the Andes, 4 Bath Place, Rivington Street, London EC2 3DR

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