LOS ANGELES, Calif. They take to the streets for safety from abusive parents, others land there after the loss of their parents. Either way, the street kids of Brazil, some 8 years or younger, soon discover the transient lifestyle is anything but safe. Most survive just three to four years. Few will live to see their 18th birthdays.
Whether it's from addiction to inhalants, disease from forced sex trades, gang warfare or collateral damage from organized crime, Hope Unlimited plans to stymie the trend through a $4.8 million campaign to create the Hope Institute.
Founded 15 years ago by former San Diego residents, Phillip Smith and his late father, Jack, the faith-based charity is planning to expand its ministry to include a training center to improve indigenous outreach.
"They went down to see what they could do," said Steve Bostian, acting U.S. director for the ministry, which is now based in Los Alamitos. "Immediately, God began doing miracles."
Among them was the donation of a run-down orphanage.
"Within a few months, we were up and running," he said.
And on Nov. 9, in celebration of the ministry's 15th birthday, a kickoff fundraiser netted $330,000, the first of the ambitious campaign. The institute wil be used to train existing indigenous ministries that are trying to tackle the issue.
"We've had a lot of demand for this," he said.
The ministry administrator said experts estimate Brazil has between 7 million to 10 million street children. About 18 percent are biological orphans, the remainder are what Bostian termed social orphans, those who have fled their homes because of abuse, neglect and violence.
"They feel like they would be better off on their own, with other street kids," he said.
The administrator admits conditions have improved slightly with the end of most roaming death squads, hired by local businesses in the early 1990s to rid the streets of the children who camp out with nowhere to go. The murders were conducted in such numbers that some human rights groups have labeled the practice as genocide. Most survived by criminal means.
Even so, there is complicated work to be done.
"They come with a lot of wounds, a lot of baggage," he said. "There are some methods that work and some that don't. We've been fortunate to find that formula.
"We are hopeful we can really put a dent in the problem and make a difference exponentially."
The formula involves creating long-term housing and educational opportunities for the discarded children who are considered non-adoptable because of emotional scars and serious emotional problems.
We try to create and model for them some sort of Christian home life," he said.
The homes consist of up to 16 kids living with house parents, who commit at least 10 years to the program. The ministry provides teachers, social workers, counselors and vocational trainers to help them mainstream back into society. Their progress is monitored for up to a decade.
"We try to eliminate any barrier that would keep them from being a success," he said.
In addition to the institute, the ministry's expansion plan includes building a boys ranch and a separate one to handle the girls. Money raised in the United States will be supplemented with support from Brazil, which represents about 70 percent of the budget. All staff members are Brazilians, with the exception of Smith, the ministry president, and his wife, who live in the South American country. More than 1,000 youth have been assisted by the program, which operates near Sao Paulo.
"Our heart's desire is to change this generational cycle of hopelessness and give them the hope of Christ so they may become leaders in their homes, communities, and churches," Smith said in a news release.
Securing help on the home front is not easy in Brazil, Bostian said.
"There is a lot of wealth down there, but there's not a culture of giving," Bostian said.
A side goal of the capital campaign is getting the word out about the needs of the country's most vulnerable citizens.
"It's also about raising awareness because there are so many other problems in the world," he said. "It kind of gets swept aside by what's going on in the Middle East and in Africa and other parts of the world."
For more information, call 1-888-444-1344 or visit hopeunlimited.org.