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By Mira Olson, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – The embroidered handbags and handcrafted necklaces showcased during Fashion Rio 2010 this January were not only famous collections or made exclusively for fashion and profit. Among the designers were also mothers from Rio’s most impoverished neighborhoods, and their work aims to help reconstruct families—primarily their own.

Mothers making jewelry, photo courtesy of Refazer.
Mothers making jewelry, photo courtesy of Refazer.

This initiative is part of a program executed by Refazer, a non-profit organization that works with patients of the Instituto Fernandes Figueira (Fernandes Figueira Institute, or IFF) and their families.

The IFF is a public hospital and research institute that specializes in maternal-infant care of critical diseases. Refazer serves families indicated by IFF that have at least one child with a chronic illness, that live in favelas in Rio de Janeiro and that earn less than three minimum wages. On average these families comprise a single mother with five children.

The mothers, who have generally left the work force to care for their sick children, meet weekly at the Refazer house in Botafogo to practice their craft, learn new patterns, and gather materials to take home and work on throughout the week. According to Helena Rocha, Refazer’s Director of Marketing and Communications, the women collect earnings monthly based on their production; “this allows the mother to become the head of the household once again.”

Rocha began working for Refazer as a volunteer in 2001 and in 2006 started the handicrafts project, which currently does not have an official name. “I saw that we had to focus on the mother; it is through her that we can successfully reconstruct the family,” she states.

The primary objective of Refazer is to prevent children with chronic illnesses from being hospitalized and from their conditions being worsened because they live in poverty. To do this, Refazer targets entire families and their living conditions. After an initial assessment of the home by social workers, Refazer delivers monthly packages that include basic items from the consumer basket, powdered milk, and all medications that ill children require.

It also provides crucial items, such as wheelchairs and respiratory machines. “Sometimes it’s as simple as installing a water filter to stop the child’s frequent hospital visits,” states Rocha.

The organization’s reformation project, Projeto Tijolo, addresses inadequate living circumstances that exacerbate the condition of sick children. It also aims to provide families with healthier and a more dignified home by improving the physical state of their houses.

As part of the Refazer program, families are required to participate in Projeto Prevenir (Project Prevention). They attend monthly meetings and discuss topics such as hygiene, nutrition, domestic violence, drugs, family planning and citizenship. Children participate in music therapy activities while mothers have individual sessions with social workers to assess progress.

Participating mothers of the handicrafts project, photo courtesy of Refazer.
Participating mothers of the handicrafts project, photo courtesy of Refazer.

In September Refazer will celebrate fifteen years of operation. According to Rocha, the organization has evolved significantly; “we’ve learned a lot in the process about what not to do. Now we have a model that works seamlessly.”

Rocha cites examples, such as the prerequisite that a family’s house be in the mother’s name. “We finished remodeling a house and the father sold it and then expected us to remodel their next house,” she explains.

Refazer, which is part of the Rede Saúde Criança (Child Health Network, or RSC), currently works with 120 families. The program’s success is demonstrated by the fact that more than fifteen other RSC programs have emulated this model.

For now the handicrafts project remains unique to Refazer. Once the organization determines that a family has made sufficient progress, the mother is invited to participate in the project, which is handled like a real job. In addition to earning compensation for her products, each mother is provided with free transportation and meals.

While Refazer depends on sponsorship and donations to execute their other fronts, the handicrafts project is self-sustaining. Presently, it has a store at Shopping da Gávea (Gávea Shopping Mall). The organization is allowed use of unoccupied spaces until they are rented by another business. In addition, top brands such as New Order, Cantão, Wöllner, Santa Cor, Alfaias and Granado regularly place orders with Refazer for products made exclusively for them.

For further information on Refazer visit the website: www.refazer.org.br.

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