“It was all I ever dreamt of”, were the words – along with the look of wonder – of the little girl when she walked in on her first day at the PEPE(…Programma de educação pre Escola, or preschool education programme) just beginning in the favelas where she lived in Sao Paulo, So many children in favelas or areas of poverty do not have the privilege of attending a preschool before starting primary school at 6/7 years old. Not only is it the age when they can assimilate knowledge more easily but it is the time when they are full of curiosity and wonder, and enjoy learning new information and concepts.
The PEPE was started in Jardim Olinda, Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1992 to try to help deprived children of 5 and 6 enter school, be prepared for school, gain self-esteem and realise that they were special and quite as capable of doing well at school as any other child from a well-off area.
The local church backed up the programme and premises were obtained in the favelas. Surveys had been also been undertaken to see whether the community wanted this type of help, whether there were sufficient children and if the lack of preschool education was a problem.
The children were not use to any type of routine, discipline or adult authority, and so the learning was very actively based with games, crafts and activity corners, along with a short formal type of lesson.
The children came from homes where there was a deep-rooted belief that they could not do well at school and that school was boring. After a few weeks this soon changed! They realised that they were capable of all sorts of tasks and actually enjoyed it. They even enjoyed the routine, as it gave a sense of security that the majority of them were not familiar with. There were many problems to overcome. The premises were set on fire accidentally by drug-takers who kept trying to use the premises and found it a great place to hide from the police. Equipment was stolen – the cooker, toys, even the toilet and washbasin!
Rain came in and school materials were damaged. Then there were the usual problems of children covered in lice, and others who appeared one colour but were quite different when all the dirt was removed, children who had no clothes except a pair of holey pants, children who were constantly hungry and whose parents seemed to be always under the influence of drugs, so that they never had even the bare necessities. Others kicked, bit or could never sit down to do anything, as they had been left to their own devices their whole short life.
There were no psychologists and no outside help, but a God that answered our prayers, and the children grew, enjoyed the preschool and just wanted to learn.
By the end of the school year they were ready to go onto the local school, where the majority adapted quickly and got off to a flying start alongside children from more privileged communities. Before, there had been a huge drop out of favela children in the schools due to lack of confidence and unfamiliarity as to how to behave. A short time after the start of the school year the Director called us in and asked us to double the number in the preschool as the children were doing so well. They were now happy to give places to children from the favela.
Other local churches heard about our work and soon got in contact requesting that we help them to begin a preschool in the favelas nearby. A lot of churches were wanting to help the people in the favelas but many were frightened of the community and had no idea as to how to help. Most models of community work were expensive and beyond their financial and human resources. The PEPE used their own premises and their members and was therefore possible, provided they were given guidance on teaching.
So the preschool expanded from one local church to another and therefore from one favela community to another, giving a great start in life to the children of drug traffickers, prisoners and just ordinary poor families. It was a simple project that helped the local churches to serve communities that were in great need and often forgotten by society.
The PEPE has now expanded to many states in the north of Brazil where there is extreme poverty. In 2001 it was started in Mozambique at the request of the Baptist Convention. Now it is also in Peru, Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia, Angola, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cape Verde and São Tome e Principe. There are more than 300 units operating and the movement is still growing.
We are now more organised. There is now a qualified coordinator for each PEPE, as well as area coordinators who give guidance and visits to the PEPEs. We also have project books for the teachers to follow and training manuals for new teachers and coordinators.
The children coming in every year have many problems due to their situation and poverty, but they continue to learn extremely well, often becoming top of the class and making a good transition into primary schooling.
So, from one small preschool in Jardim Olinda with 25 children in 1992, there are now some 7,000 children this year with about 300 local teachers working every day in the PEPEs, supported by 30 coordinators. The growth is due to the dedication over the years of hundreds of staff and the way God has blessed the programme from the beginning and continues to do so.
To find out more and to help support PEPEs visit our site www.pepe-network.org.
Georgine Lyn Christine OBE is the founder of PEPE, a Preschool Education Programme which began in Brazil.