Padre Emilio Jose Fernandez is the music director at the Don Bosco Roga children's refuge in Paraguay. The home is located in the capital, Asuncion, in one of the poorest neighborhoods, where many runaways congregate. In this interview with FRONTLINE/World reporter Monica Lam, Fernandez describes how he works with young boys who often come to the home traumatized, malnourished and with little or no education, after spending years on city streets. He also talks about the home's open-door policy, the importance of music in the boys' lives and the life skills the teachers try to impart.
Q: Monica Lam: What happens in the streets?
A: Padre Emilio: For these kids, the streets are their home. Why? Because they have been abandoned; because their parents were not able to control them; because of excessive poverty, abuse, inattention and other factors that pushed them into the streets. So, the streets are their home -- a very dangerous home. Here they encounter many dangers like hunger, having nowhere to sleep, violence, drugs, stealing, sexual abuse and other problems. So we decided to go find them, get to know their place, visit them and take some sport supplies to play with them, give them food, and talk to them about the home, Don Bosco Roga, which means "Don Bosco Home."
Q: Tell me more about where the kids go when they first arrive here.
A: So they come to visit this place. They have their first experience in the kids' shelter if they are under 14, and in the shelter called Mita Nuaja (Guarani), which means "a caress for the kids," "affection for the kids." In our interpretation, it means to be caressed by God himself. That's the shelter for kids over 14.
Q: And what happens in the shelters?
A: They start to reorganize their life. To reorganize one's life means to eat on schedule, eat what's necessary, clean yourself up, have some minimum discipline, wash your clothes -- basically, keep yourself clean and have a peaceful relationship with your equals, and avoid violence and abuse. They are followed during the process, which might last between six and 12 months. After that, they get more involved when they realize that this will be (from now on) their new home. During that period, we also have them reestablish connections with their families ... family can mean their aunt, godmother, grandmother or even their parents.
Q: How about the sleeping situation? What does it mean that in the shelters they need to re- learn how to sleep?
A: To learn how to sleep, for the kids, means to get back on a steady, reliable sleep schedule. Keep in mind that they used to sleep on the streets; therefore they were bothered by the nightlife of the city. Constant fear prevented them from having a good night's sleep. Here at least they have a serene place to rest, with someone responsible for taking care of them all night long, in case they need to get up, go to the bathroom, or they just need someone to listen to them when they suddenly wake up. Someone who will take on the responsibilities a mother or a father would have, in this case, with their own children. That's what I mean [by] learning to sleep again: To be organized, to take care of the body, to rest properly at night, to be active during the day. Because, in the streets, they also got used to sleeping a little during the day. Suddenly they would lie down to sleep on the floor because their body would just give out. So here they learn how to recover and reestablish the normal sleeping habits and behavior of children.
Q: You talked about the open-door policy and how sometimes the kids can't adjust here. Can you tell me a little more about it?
A: Our home is an open-door-style home, which means that they are invited and motivated to come into the home, but at the same time we let them know that there are certain rules to comply with, and if some day they don't feel at ease any more, or they don't comply with the regulations, they are free to go back to the streets. We can't force you to stay, but at the same time, you won't be able to stay if you are disrespectful. Open doors means that they make a conscious decision to stay, and they are free to stay or leave whenever they want. So, sometimes it happens that they threaten to leave, that they don't like it here anymore ... well, we tell them, "The doors are open ... go if you really want to." And then they calm down. The process of rehabilitation of these kids is not easy; you need a lot of patience because their psyches have been damaged, due to a lack of affection, due to hunger, [due to] violence ... So you need to be patient until they are able to believe in themselves again, as well as trust others, and realize that, this time around, they will not be abandoned. That's what open doors means.
Q: And then, what happens after maybe six or 10 months in the shelter?
A: After an adjusting period of anywhere between six months to a year, they enter The Children's Home. In The Children's Home a little more is expected on their part, and this is why we call it a home, not a shelter. The term shelter implies transience; they will not remain [in the shelter] but instead will have the chance to experience what it means to be part of a home. But when they finally do move into The Children's Home ... then they will have to commit to the responsibilities and commitments that come with being part of a real home.
Q: Can you explain the process of contacting their families?
A: When they enter the home -- even before, when we meet them on the streets -- one of our main goals is to reestablish their family ties. But it's up to them. They decide why [to do this]. Because if we force them, they will never bring us to their house; they will escape, send us somewhere else. It happened many times. So they need to tell us first, "I want to see my mom." Then, yes, we come along. And we have a social worker with them; so we go and see their reality.
Q: So the children sometimes stay with their families, but sometimes they don't.
A: They visit their parents, but only in a few cases do they actually stay with them. We have them try it out. But then we'll suddenly see them back in the streets again. So they come back to the home and stay a little longer, until they finally try to go back to their families again. If it still doesn't work, then that is when we start working with them. Here with us, they have to learn to live in balance. They have their daily meals, the rest they need, and they also have the right to study. So we start them on a reintegrative academic program, where they might -- however old they are, whatever grade they might be in -- become involved again in the educational process. Because education is everything; education starts at home. But it's the academic part they've missed ... because of whatever their situation: either poverty or stress or hyperactivity... they were not able to stay or had difficulty understanding and keeping up with the lesson program, so they were marginalized. Once on the streets, they start failing classes one after the other and being held back in school until they are no longer able to stay in school. Here, we receive them regardless of their situation and we reorganize their education, starting at the level they left. Some go back to first grade. There is a stage where they are all mixed up; some don't even reach the minimum reading and writing levels. So they learn that again, and then they are able to go back to the grade where they belong. We also investigate their original schools, to see what level they actually reached, to send them back to that level. The older ones are encouraged to take special exams to test out of certain grades and go directly into fourth, fifth, sixth grade. And so on.
Q: And what are the common obstacles encountered by the children once they are back at school ... attention deficits?
A: At school they usually have to confront their personal problems, like attention disorders. They lost the ability to focus, and they lost it in the streets, sometimes at home. It's a dispersed type of attention when they say, "I do this; I do that until something else calls my attention, so I do that now." They really struggle to achieve a normal, continuous, organized attention.
Another aspect that we skipped was the health factor. They all come in with serious health issues, malnutrition and parasites because of eating whatever they find on the streets, right? So, the first thing we do is let them wash up and become healthy, to recover their health. And thank God we have a group of doctors that is always welcoming our kids to give them check-ups; provide dental care; treat their parasites, their eyesight, everything they need to recover. And this, along with a healthy diet, enables them to regain a dignified appearance. And you'll also notice that here nobody is fat. Why? Because they are in constant movement. They are well fed, so after a while they gain a healthy body. Of course, there are some things that we can't help them with, like when they come in with articulation problems, broken bones ... but we do have doctors ready to operate when they are ready. Thankfully this home receives the help of a lot of good people, professionals that help the kids recover as much as possible.
Q: I have a question about attention span and its relation to music. Why music?
A: Thankfully we had the possibility to integrate music in the childrens' recovery process. Fundacion Sinfonia donated an entire orchestra of 90 instruments, and we chose to use the music as a tool for the recovery of these kids, a tool for social reintegration. We all know that learning music provides motivation because one can express their spirit through music. It is something that requires attention, and when one is motivated he pays more attention. And many kids were able to recover their attention, thanks to music. That's why I say that providence sent us these possibilities. The home has had a Symphonic School for over three years. In the beginning, we started this project with the help of Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo. Currently that bank is no longer involved in this, but we have some other organizations helping us to continue this project. One of those organizations is the project Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Earth), headed by Master Luis Szaran, who found out about our necessities through some other instructors who were helping us and who were in touch with him. He, too, had a great part in helping us to realize this project, and today Sonidos de La Tierra is providing great opportunities for the kids. They even donated some instruments for the kids, like violins, cellos and scholarships for courses at the conservatory for those who dream of becoming musicians. And we hope that many of our kids will reach that level. That's the goal we have for our kids.
Q: And do you really think that music can reach the kids and help them in their general education?
A: Absolutely! Music is reaching the inner core of these kids. Many of them have had improvements with regards to their behavior and thus, along with that, have improved their attention, their learning. They have more motivation to live, to leave their bad street habits behind. We have more than one example from them. Music transforms them into dreamers, people capable of changing the world. Same thing with sports. We pay a lot of attention to sports here because it helps them to develop as people -- body and mind. And music has that particular magic that heightens the children's self esteem to the point where they say, "I can play that instrument, and if I can play that instrument, I can learn to live." That's exactly what's happening to many of these kids.
Q: And can you tell me a little bit about one child who's particularly talented?
A: We could name many, but let's say Aureliano. Aureliano is a 16-year-old who's currently playing trombone at a very advanced level. He's the typical case of the kid who came to the home from the streets and has taken advantage of all that he was offered. He's currently in seventh grade; he's furthering his education and has many skills. Music helped him to discover his skills, and now he dreams of becoming a great musician. Aureliano has been in this process for the past four years. He struggled to recover his health and his strength. He went back to school. He plays trombone perfectly, practically perfectly, at a very advanced level. He made his own guitar. He also likes playing guitar. And his dream is to be a member of a professional orchestra. I'm sure he is one of the kids who's going to be very successful, thanks to all the help he's been given.
Q: Can we talk about the kids who haven't started yet? What are the difficulties they might encounter? Like if there is one who wants to play contrabass?
A: The first obstacle we find when it comes to learning to play an instrument is their attention difficulty. It's hard for them to stay quietly while learning. You give them an instrument, and they get up and walk around. Until, slowly, they realize that if they don't stay quiet and pay attention to the scores, the note you are teaching them, they won't learn. Time will pass, and they will lose interest. They'll stop playing or ask for a different instrument. The first step for the child is to have the instrument in his hands. To feel that they have it, they own it. They even say, "This is my instrument." And then they realize about the responsibilities that come with the instrument, because they have to share it with someone else. The second problem is the lack of self-esteem that they have in saying, "I am able to learn." Because, first, they just play with the instrument, until they realize that they can play it too. When that happens ... that's when something starts changing inside them: they become more responsible; they have a predictable schedule; they take a serious interest in learning an instrument and being an integral part of the orchestra. They know that the music is also integrating them with other people, and it lets them dream. They go see concerts and they see their instruments being played by professionals and they say, "Some day I'll play like that." So that hope starts moving them every day in their practices. When one has a dream, a goal, it's the best that can happen to a person, and these kids find this in music.
Q: What happens when the boys grow into their teenage years?
A: There's a third stage that we call the Teenagers' Home. There is a moment when the kids grow up to be teenagers, and they need a place of their own. When they turn 15, they move on to Teenagers' Home. Between 15 and 18, they have a different atmosphere and more responsibilities. Most of them go out to neighboring schools. They go out into the real world, and, by the way, they have a chance to show how much they've learned, because they become leaders in their schools. They work, they make some money and they save for the future, to get what they want, what they need, and have some savings. The Teenagers' Home is organized in a way so they can think about their future. Lots of them -- before turning 18, they already go back to their homes and help out financially. They can get a job and help their mothers, grandmothers, whom they are living with. Some of them are helped to create a room there, get a bed, and they are practically set but without losing contact with this home -- that is the teenager's home.
Q: And what happens after they turn 18?
A: After they turn 18, they have to make their own life. They are adults now. However, they haven't completely cut relationships with the home because they are not yet completely self-sufficient. Some can go back home, regardless of the problems they have there. Others will rent a room. We have nice examples of young men -- 23, 24 years old -- who have found their niche in sports, for example. We have one young man called Jorge Cabrera, who is currently the best runner in the country, and he came out of this home. He is studying the second year of psychology with a scholarship from the university that he got thanks to his sport skills. He is a long-distance runner and represents the country in international events.
Q: Why do you play oboe in the orchestra?
A: I play oboe with the orchestra because you have to be a positive example to the kids. When you make the effort to play an instrument, they say, "Well, we are going to be an example, because Pai Emilio is doing it also." On the other hand, I also enjoy playing this instrument very much. Playing an instrument makes you feel younger, and you can express yourself and find your own musical vocation. And I believe I have a musical vocation. And when you are together with the kids, you need to pass your love of music and the arts to them, which are the expressions of the spirit. And it's a challenge; you have to confront the oboe the same as you would with any other instrument. So we are in it together. And I'm the oldest kid in the orchestra.