Rocinha Rio de Janeiro

A Smile for Il Sorriso: Volunteering Projeto Jovem Style

In Blog, Brazil, Photography, Storytelling by Kay0 Comments

After the first month of living in Rio, I realized quickly that I was feeling increasingly unfulfilled, despite going to the beach daily, walking everywhere, and learning how to speak Portuguese. Then, in a moment of pure beach people-watching goodness, I realized this: I haven’t been doing any kind of service.

Many of you know about my trips to Guatemala, last year and this year, which were both volunteer-based journeys in groups of 14 students. These experiences opened my eyes to a world of serving others and a different lifestyle than I had previously lived. Never in my life do I feel as motivated, fulfilled, or inspired than when I am doing something for other people, and I am always excited when I am afforded the opportunity to do so.

Day 2: Via Apia, Rocinha

Day 2 of my Brasil 100 Project – Rocinha Favela, the view from where I volunteer

Which is why I decided to scour the Internet for a way to give back to the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Finally, after perusing countless outdated websites and sending out about two dozen emails, both in Portuguese and in English, I stumbled upon Il Sorriso Dei Miei Bimbi, an education-based Italian NGO serving the largest favela in Latin America, Rocinha. I liked their mission of teaching students about social issues, global issues, health, and art, so I took a deep breath and shot them an email.

It was less than 24 hours later that I got a reply, asking me if I could come in to interview and take a look at the projects. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but they gave very specific directions on how to get to the NGO, so I took the leap and decided to give it a shot.

When I got to the road where the NGO is located, I looked around, not seeing any kind of sign for it. I figured a sign in Italian for a youth-based NGO would be easy to spot, but after a few confused seconds of looking, I finally found a small corridor that led directly to a staircase, matching the address that was given to me. The door was open, but the staircase was dark, making me a little bit nervous to enter. But, at the same time, the element of intrigue was enormous, so of course I ascended the staircase, following the directions until the very top floor.

What greeted me was a strange, eclectic mixture of things and people. A beautiful, 3D mural was visible on the right-hand wall right as I walked in. The walls were a seafoam green color. About twelve teenage students stood in the doorway of what looked like a small kitchen. Around the corner to the right was a closed door and a small room with computers. Sounds of Italian, English, and Portuguese floated through the air. I knew I’d arrived at the right place.

“Excuse me,” I said in my hesitant Portuguese to one of the girls managing the teenagers, “I’m looking for a man named Marco. I have an interview with him.”

“Oh yeah. He’s here, but he’s in a meeting. In the meantime, you could sit in on this class if you’d like,” she replied as she pointed toward the door that was closed before, now open and full of afternoon sunshine. Before class started, I talked to the girl a bit more, finding out her name is Chiara and she is Italian, currently teaching Italian language to the students in the NGO. She told me she was leaving in mid-September.


As students started to file into the classroom, I followed them, taking a seat on the side of the room.

Today’s lesson, in a class that they call “Citizenship,” was about the changing of the age of majority for criminals here in Brazil. The current legislation is advocating for the age of majority to change from 18 to 16 years. I found it quite intriguing and valuable that they would teach the teenagers about this, especially since I didn’t remember learning about these kinds of things in my high school. Soon after the class began, however, I was called into the main office.

I don’t remember much about my interview, except meeting Helena, the director of the program for adolescents, Projeto Jovem. She explained her role as the director and as a psychologist for the NGO, then told me a little bit about what I would be doing. Before I even realized it, I’d signed myself up to come in twice a week until December, as well as recruiting another student for the days I would have to miss.


So now, here I am in my third week of volunteering with Il Sorriso Dei Miei Bimbi, and needless to say, it has changed my life. The group of students I work primarily with is so smart, fun, and driven. They are engaged in their classes and they care about each other. One invited me to her house for lunch one day. Another invited me to a balada, or a hangout spot with dancing and music. They’re my friends on Facebook now, but more importantly, my friends in real life.

I’m so glad and excited to be engaged in service again, and I know my time with Projeto Jovem is going to fly by. But I’m also so thankful and, quite frankly, lucky to have met the new friends I’ve made here in Rocinha through this program. I know this will be a memorable and life-changing experience, thanks to these guys!

Do you like to volunteer? What motivates you to do so? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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