The last general letter I wrote was about Christmas here in Quito, Ecuador. In this letter I'd like to give you an update on some of the principal projects which I've been working.
MISSIONS -- In my 10 years in Quito, more than 200 people have come to visit on mission. They have worked and seen many projects to completion -- the soup kitchen, medical clinic, school, day care center, and more.
THE COMEDOR (soup kitchen) -- Why did we start it? Father Patrick McIntyre from Ireland, with whom I work and live, has been here 25 years. He always had a dream of a soup kitchen, but did not have the funds to build it. He knew that most of the kids who went to the nearby public schools, Diego Abad (more than 800 students), went to school without breakfast. A Notre Dame study said that the No, 1 reason for the high mortality rate among young children in Ecuador was malnutrition. Worse yet, 55% of our children have a parasite tapeworm in their bellies. There are also quite a few elderly poor in our barrio ("slum"), who live alone and can't afford to buy food. Father Paddy wanted to provide one square meal a day for the very young and the very old. He mentioned this need to me when I came here in 2003.
Through the generosity of the people in the Joliet Diocese, we were able to build a soup kitchen, which is now in its tenth year of operation. We have a huge sign "San Carlos Borromeo Comedor Popular" (St. Charles Borromeo) after the patron of the Joliet Diocese. We feed more than 100 people every day at our noon meal, right after school gets out, Monday to Friday. The meal is good, substantial, and healthy. It is a steal for the 35 cents we charge. We have monthly and family rates, which most of the people subscribe to. If someone can't pay this amount, we charge less or nothing, but in a secret way that safeguards their pride. Members of poor families can come and take food home.
Last year we supplied more than 5,100 meals. This year there is something new and charming. Many teachers are starting to come and often sit with their students. We do have a family atmosphere. I hope we can keep the soup kitchen going.
SAN CARLOS BORROMEO CENTRO MEDICO (medical clinic) -- The clinic is now in its ninth year of operation. It was built in the same building as the soup kitchen, on the side and above it. Although there are some government-sponsored health care clinics in different parts of the Quito area, we felt a need to provide better and more available health care nearby for the people of our local community, the barrio Colinas del Norte. In general, in Ecuador, if people cannot pay for their medicines, doctor bills, and hospital bills, it is not easy for them to have their health needs met. The help which the government may give is not well publicized, and people know that Catholic hospitals do not turn away patients because of their lack of ability to pay.
We are fortunate to have in our parish a religious congregation, the Sisters of Providence, who run the Hospital San José Obrero (St. Joseph the Worker) in Quito proper. Recently, to move towards self sufficiency, we have been able to establish our clinic as a branch of this hospital. We are proud of our clinic. Mornings and afternoons from Monday to Friday and on Saturday morning we have a doctor for general medicine, and a dentist. Three days a week we have a lab technician, and three afternoons a week we have a physical therapist. We have just added a psychologist three afternoons a week. So we are well staffed.
I feel that we have a warm, caring atmosphere. Our clients feel that they are treated as important, respected individuals. In addition, we have yearly medical missions, headed by Colin Sumida. When this mission arrives, they bring medicines, which helps stock the clinic. As a result, we are able to give away a lot of medicine for free to those who can't afford to pay. In 2012 our doctors saw 1,589 patients; our dentist saw 673 dental patients; our technician did lab work for 479 patients, and our physical therapist saw 142 patients. Our psychologist just started, so I have no statistics for last year.
The clinic has been a base for nine (9) medical missions, lasting one or two weeks, from the Joliet Diocese, then from Holy Spirit parish, and then via an independent group, with many from that parish. These medical missionaries have worked not only in the clinic itself, but also in the hospital, and in the upper barrios Rancho Alto, José Peralta, and Mirador. The good they have done is incalculable. I hope these missions will continue. I hope we can keep the clinic open, because it satisfies a real need in the community. At times this clinic is self-supporting.
PUBLIC SCHOOL -- In Ecuador there are no school districts as in the States. So here parents are free to send their children, usually by public bus, to any public school they choose. So we see children on the same block wearing the uniforms of five or six different schools. Aleman, the school in Rancho Alto, was much too small for the barrio, and consequently had only 110 students when I came. But youth and construction workers from that upper barrio have constructed a kitchen, five classrooms, and an office, as well as connected the school water supply to that of the barrio. As a result, the school now has 500 students, and the barrio can be proud of its school. Local missionaries from the barrio work at the public school - this is important for "barrio morale."
ADULT EDUCATION ("Fe y Alegría") -- As I have written, education is not as high a priority in Ecuador as in the States. Often neither parents nor students care much about the grades on report cards. One reason is that there are very few jobs, and as a result, many kids don't finish high school. But later, as adults, they realize the value of a high school education. Our program provides the means for these individuals to obtain the equivalent of a GED. It is a six-year program with 18 different courses, on Sundays from 7:30 to 1:30. The courses focus heavily on computers, but there are also courses in Spanish, English, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Human Relations, and Human Formation (values), which I have had the privilege to co-teach. To get a degree the students must pass tests written and corrected by the government education department, which periodically inspects our program. This year one student did not pass because she didn't study hard enough, but 16 of our students graduated with a high school equivalent diploma. We now have 90 students in the program, more than ever before. It is an achievement to be proud of, and must continue.
This is not the only program being sponsored in the education center. For example, for years on Wednesday nights our Afro-Ecuadorian group has had Bible study. Every day, Monday to Saturday, a woman from the government education ministry has a two-hour class teaching adults how to read. One night a week there is a program for alcoholics, similar to AA. We have started a library in the center. There is also a "catch up" course for kids behind on computer skills.
MIGUELITO (day care center) -- Lastly, we come to the important but challenging daycare center. A little history, in our barrio we have many single parent families. Many young women live far away from their natural families - they have children, but no man around. They have to work in the city to support their young ones. Twenty years ago a young mother left her two very young children in charge of a baby when she went to work. In the Quito barrios there are lots of free-roaming animals - dogs, goats, cows, cats, roosters, etc, who don't make any distinction between what is outside the home and what is inside. They walk everywhere. One day, when the mother was working and the two very young children were playing outside, the family pig came in and ate the baby. This tragedy came to the notice of a local Jesuit missionary, Padre Luis Casanas, who decide that something had to be done. He started construction on a daycare center for single parent families whose mothers have to go into the city to work. With the cooperation of the Catholic Church, barrio, Sisters, and Father Paddy, the center was completed and dedicated in 1993. I inherited it when I became pastor of Rancho Alto in 2004.
I cannot tell you how much good it has done. As I told many, I have never seen a more loving, caring, and devoted group of women who work in the day care center. They are simply fabulous. For the past few years construction and youth ministries have come from the Joliet diocese to add classrooms, nurseries, and a playground. They have improved the roofs and the floors. The young missionaries play with the kids and take them on an all-day outing to a farm. It's fantastic. In addition to day care, we also use the Miguelito in the afternoon for grade school kids who are having trouble with their classes.
Now we have 125 kids in the daycare center, aged one to four. We have 27 in the afternoon program. We have 16 teachers plus three cooks in the kitchen. But there is a dark cloud on the horizon. Over the past 20 years the government has made more and more laws about daycare centers, which are not uniformly enforced. We have had to keep adjusting our grade levels and teacher requirements every year. It's getting harder and harder to understand these laws. I pray we can do everything possible to keep this great program going.
I hope you have found this update interesting, and look forward to seeing you all at our big event on February 16.
Thanks for everything.