As a young child living in the slums of Puerto Nuovo, Peru, little Alvaro happily played in the shadow of shipping barges -- never knowing the danger lurking in the air he breathed, or in the soil beneath his feet. These barges carried one of Peru’s largest exports, lead. And the nearby mines supplying that lead poisoned Alvaro and thousands of other innocent children living nearby. Today, Salesian missionaries are helping these “children of lead”overcome significant odds.
This work comes with considerable challenge. Given the widespread impact of the contamination, environmentalists have dubbed this area of Peru the “Slow Chernobyl.” Thousands of children already have lead levels in their blood that far surpass the 10 micrograms per deciliter dubbed “safe” by the World Health Organization -- and more are being contaminated each day. As a result, they suffer irreversible damage to their central nervous systems -- which stunts physical and intellectual development.
“In an economically depressed area where jobs are scarce and future opportunity bleak, adults in and around Puerto Nuovo face an almost unimaginable choice, “ says Fr. Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “They can refuse paid work and risk generational poverty -- or they can reluctantly support the presence of mines and refineries at the risk of their children’s health.
“The immediate need to feed, clothe and shelter their families trumps any consideration of long-term well-being,” Fr. Mark continues. “And so we endeavor to help in whatever small way we can.”
Through the Niños de Plomo project, Salesian missionaries in the nearby city of Callao are working with 80 children and adolescents like Alvaro. Because of their cognitive and emotional difficulties, these “children of lead” struggle in traditional classrooms and are therefore less likely to achieve the higher levels of education necessary to break the cycle of poverty.
Niños de Plomo aims to improve students’ educational outcomes through tutoring in reading, math and other academic subjects -- while simultaneously offering workshops in interpersonal communication, logic and educational psychology. Further, students also participate in music and dance activities designed to improve their physical, mental and emotional development.
Youth complete their studies in the computer class using online programs and games that help them develop reason and literacy, as well as useful technological skills.
While the road ahead remains challenging for these students, Salesians on the ground report a strong determination to succeed. One day -- with hard work and the support of our caring friends like you -- many of Puerto Nuovo’s children will take their place as contributing members of society.