Church day care center provides a place for poor children

September 15, 2011

In the Comité del Pueblo section of Quito, the Episcopal Diocese of Central Ecuador operates "El Portal de Belen," a day care center serving some 70-80 at-risk children and toddlers.

The center operates Monday through Friday from 7 a.m.- 5 p.m. year-round, providing early childhood development and day care, including fresh, well-balanced, meals to children ages 1 through 5. The parents, mostly single mothers, pay up $35 dollars a week, for day care that would cost $120 on the open market.

"Through the day care, the church fulfills its call to mission," said Rocio Recalde, the day care center's director in Spanish through an interpreter. "The center provides a social service."

The Episcopal Church's House of Bishops is holding its fall meeting Sept. 15-20 at the Hilton Colón Hotel in downtown Quito. On Sept. 17 some bishops, spouses and partners will visit Comité del Pueblo, a local church and the day care center to witness the local ministry firsthand, others will visit churches and programs in other parts of the diocese.

Nationwide, 36 percent of Ecuadorians live at or below the poverty line, according to World Bank statistics. Comité del Pueblo, characterized by high unemployment, poverty and crime, is home to more than 100,000 people. Low housing costs attract residents: It's possible to find a room with a shared bathroom for between $30 and $35 a month. It's not uncommon to have one bathroom, without a shower, shared by 15 people, said Recalde.

Sections of the neighborhood are built on a hillside, prone to landslides, where children sometimes live in shacks with tin roofs, she added.

"The reality is one of extreme poverty. These children, who are the poorest of the poor, are the direct beneficiaries of care," Recalde said. "The children when they come are either withdrawn or aggressive and with the passing of time their behavior changes. They learn to share, and be in solidarity with their classmates."

Malnutrition is also a concern, she added, "some children don’t have anything to eat."

It is clear from their actions, Recalde said, that the mothers are grateful for the day care center.

"The appreciation of the mothers toward the church for all that their children receive is demonstrated in their willingness to help out when it is asked of them," she said. "Selling tickets to BBQs, dressing their children as angels during Christmastime and participating in church activities."

And for Recalde, the satisfaction comes from "being able to help women in vulnerable situations who don't have anyone to turn to," she said.

Historically, Comité del Pueblo, or "the peoples' committee," belonged to a few landowners and then the poor people started coming in and demanding that they have access to land because it wasn’t producing anything; it was just sitting there idle, said Patricia Morck, an Episcopal Church appointed missionary assigned to the Diocese of Central Ecuador.

"The city finally gave the people the right to settle here and build, and this area has since become a very populated, low-income working class neighborhood full of internal migrants and immigrants, so we have Venezuelans, Colombians, Haitians, Peruvians and Ecuadorians," she said.

With the help of the diocese, the day care can cover utilities and the salaries of five employees; for building maintenance, educational and other supplies, and food, it has relied on outside support often from private donors and from Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, which helped purchase the building.

The diocese is converting the rooftop into a garden where they can grow fruits, vegetables and grains in an attempt to keep costs down for parents and also so they can continue to offer their teachers a benefits package consistent with Ecuadorian law, which costs about $220 per month, Morck explained.

Seabury-Western Theological Seminary has also helped by sending volunteers, as have Columbia, Yale and Harvard Universities, volunteers who have also raised money from friends and family.

"We've been really blessed because every time someone has come to visit, they have helped us," Recalde said.

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