By Kate Rintoul, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL — Il Sorriso dei miei Bimbi (The Smile of My Baby) is an Italian social program creating better conditions for the education of children and young people living in Rocinha, one of Brazil’s largest favelas. The charity was founded in 2002 by Barbara Olivi, an Italian who has lived in Rocinha for over twelve years, working with children of all ages to ensure they receive better access to education and opportunities.
Many children in Rocinha have to overcome a great deal of obstacles that hamper their education from a young age. These range from having to travel large distances get to school, not being able to afford materials, having to share the responsibility of helping their parents earn money and looking after younger siblings.
Marco Loiodice, who left Italy to work with the organization told the Italian press of his first impressions, “…It is obvious that none of the middle class have ever set foot [in Rocinha]. Urban density is very high, and there are many young people. So, they are one of the earliest memories: a vast number of children always smiling […], who love life.”
Il Sorriso dei miei Bimbi is an independent NGO (non-profit organization) supported by donations and fundraising activities. As an expatriate in Rio, Olivi has successfully engaged the wider international community to raise funds and also foster understanding and connections between these two groups.
Expatriate Anna Whyte who works with the American Society, the British Society and the International Newcomers Club, met Olivi through a friend and has gone on to become more involved in the charity. “I went to Il Sorriso and I was so impressed with Barbara’s commitment, her passion to help the youth and the great impact on education for these kids, that I have maintained contact all these years and introduced many more volunteers to the project”.
Olivi believes that all human beings deserve equal opportunities for a better life. She is committed to early education and Il Sorriso is one of the few ONGs to offer a kindergarten for children aged two to six that prepares them for school, ensuring that they can read, write and do basic math.
Il Sorriso takes a holistic approach to eduction, as Whyte adds, “Barbara also believes in the enrichment of the arts and is committed to exposing these children to art galleries, musical performances, dance, theatre, cinema and the beauty of nature”.
“She creates a safe and hygienic environment for the children to learn. Some children from Rocinha who attend her facility do not have running water in their homes. Barbara and her staff make sure these children go home clean as they have various bathrooms at the facility”.
The charity’s literacy project “Alfabetização em Ação” caters for children and adults helping them learn to read and also inspiring a lifelong interest in literature. This year Il Sorriso are renovating an old garage to become Garagem das Letras, the first literary cafe in Rocinha which will serve as a cultural center, run by the community’s teenagers, providing them with vocational experiences in running a business.
Part of the reason that Il Sorriso has been so successful is that Olivi has constantly found ways to connect Rio’s international community to the children living in the favela community. Through the SpeakEasy program, volunteers from the International Club, teach children and young people English. Olivi has also used her contacts to secure teen graduates from the program with the opportunity to travel to England to further study and experience a new culture.
Il Sorriso provides an essential service in supporting their learning. As well as helping them with practical issues, the charity’s presence inside the favela community gives them access to teachers and resources and the space to focus on their education.