Primeiros Passos (First Steps) is a community-based project established to respond to the unmet needs of the physical and mentally disabled residents of Rocinha one of the largest urban slums in the Western Hemisphere. Rocinha, with its approximately 150,000 to 200,000 inhabitants, has thousands of residents with disabilities, many of them with critical needs.
Primeiros Passos (First Steps) is a community-based organization (CBO) established to respond to the unmet needs of the physical and mentally disabled residents of Rocinha, one of the largest urban slums in the Western Hemisphere. Rocinha, with its approximately 150,000 to 200,000 inhabitants, has thousands of residents with disabilities, many of them with critical needs. The community consistently ranks at the bottom of the list for Rio’s human development index.
First Steps was founded by Cely Ferreira de Oliveira, a single mother of a child born with cerebral palsy. Cely has fought to get by in a community that has no basic social services for the physically and mentally disabled. Because of her struggles she began to notice other families and individuals within the community facing many of the same hardships. It was then that she began to volunteer her time helping these people with certain physical and mental disabilities. Because Rocinha is one of many poor and marginalized communities in Rio de Janeiro, residents with special needs are often unaware of their rights as disabled citizens, and because there are no services available, these people are left completely unattended to. For roughly 15 years Cely has been helping these residents find the appropriate services they need within the larger city of Rio de Janeiro.
In late 2006, Ricarte Echevarría and Marcos Burgos of Mundo Real met with Cely and another local resident, André Sales Batista, and decided to formalize the work that Cely has been developing for years. The project First Steps was born. The objective of the project is to respond to these unmet medical, rehabilitative, therapeutic, supportive, and recreational needs of residents and their families with special needs. Mundo Real’s role in the project is to act as a go-between to the outside world, maximizing their access to resources, providing appropriate social capital and educational experience in order to build capacity for Cely and André Sales Batista as community organizers and leaders. Mundo Real hopes to provide those involved in First Steps with resources that were limited or unavailable to them. By providing personal and professional development in the form of technical training and support, networking skills, educational opportunities, and organizational development, the opportunities of these individuals will be greatly increased and the project First Steps will have more force in its effort to provide services to the disabled.
First Steps members began meeting with local families of the disabled in Rocinha and identified the lack of local services and support as the most significant obstacles they face. Mundo Real began working alongside Cely and André gathering information by visiting and interviewing 100 families as a representative sample of the total number of families who had at least one member with either a physical or mental disability. To date we have over 60 families interviewed.
With no funds available, and in order to meet the immediate needs of these families, First Steps began to accept small donations in the form of medical supplies and medicine to distribute to those in need. Another resident of Rocinha, Vilson Bezerra Rodrigues, who also works for the public health agency, began to work with First Steps in resolving the enormous problem of access and transportation within the community. Many families and individuals simply do not leave their homes in order to receive assistance because they live far from the main road, inside homes within narrow alleyways and steep staircases in a densely populated urban slum. Vilson and André began meeting with the disabled at their homes, and whenever they have a scheduled medical check-up, and they literally carry them through the alleyways in order to reach the main road. Once there, they wait for a taxi, bus, or van to take them out of Rocinha. Transportation and access continues to be among the largest obstacles for those with special needs, not only because there is nothing available, but because within a poor community like Rocinha, someone could spend up to 15 to 20 percent of their monthly salary on a single taxi ride to the hospital and back.
With each step First Steps is addressing the needs of the mentally and physically disabled. Through word of mouth and meeting people on the street, the project is growing and we are reaching more of those with special needs. But there is still a very large population of disabled people within the community that we have not reached.
Mundo Real’s primary goals for Project First Steps:
- Decrease transportation distance, time, and cost for the disabled and their families.
- Provide a comfortable setting where the caretakers (principally the mothers) of the disabled can meet regularly to express their needs, stresses, and desires while working together to address these issues.
- Provide in-home visits, attendance, and service to an initial 60 special needs residents of Rocinha.
- Significantly increase communication and participation with other NGOs, government agencies, and business working to address similar issues