In 2009, inspired by the spirit of Don Bosco, a young Italian named Massimiliano Schilirò launched his personal vocation: to travel the world, as simply and as humbly as possible, in order to learn about, advocate for, and improve the circumstances of marginalized children and families. This past February, “Massi on the Road” landed in Visakhapatnam, India -- and the results of his visit already promise to transform hundreds of lives.
The capital city of Andhra Pradesh, Visakhapatnam is a vibrant port city on the Bay of Bengal, contributing more than $43 billion to India’s overall economy. It’s also home to the Kancharapalem slum, where nearly 1,000 men, women and children -- people who will never reap the benefits of their region’s wealth -- live in shacks crammed under a dilapidated railway bridge.
“Their living conditions are appalling,” describes Fr. Rathna Kumar, director of a new, Salesian-run school operating within the slum’s boundaries. “More than 800 people live in only 150 huts. There are no toilets, no waste collection, no electricity. Adults scavenge for plastic, glass, metal and cardboard on the street, hoping to recycle it for spare change. Needless to say, parents can’t afford to educate their children -- which perpetuates the grim cycle of poverty.”
In response to this challenge, Fr. Rathna and his colleagues first established a modest classroom in December 2016 -- instructing a handful of the slum’s children under a small tent. In addition to preparing students for integration into India’s public school system, missionaries provide a daily nutritious meal and medical assistance for the students, as well as a place for them to play and forget their worries. Still, the unmet needs remain great.
Enter Massi: as a former assistant director for an Austrian NGO that supports Salesian-run projects all over the world, he developed an affinity for efforts like Fr. Rathna’s very early on. When he first toured the slum as part of his lifelong journey, and understood what the Salesians were trying to do, he knew he needed to help.
With proceeds from his published travel books, and donations collected during information sessions back home in Italy, Massi was able to raise 4,000 euros (approximately $4,800) for a proper school structure. After sending his donation to Fr. Rathna, missionaries were able to construct a wooden hut that -- while small -- now accommodates 60 students between the ages of 4 and 14.
“The impact across the community has been profound,” says Fr. Rathna. “Now, even more students have a clean, safe place to learn, eat and grow together. We have the space to begin new programs that will benefit the parents who are becoming actively involved in their children’s education, which will only help guarantee successful outcomes.”
Together with the Salesians’ vision, Massi’s compassion, and their own determination, Kancharapalem’s children and families can now imagine -- and achieve -- a brighter future outside the slums.
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