São Paulo, Brazil, is the fifth-largest city in the world with a population of 19 million people in its metro area. São Paulo’s neighborhoods are densely packed around clusters of high-rise apartment buildings. The city seemed endless to me as our bus driver maneuvered the tour bus through narrow streets and eventually pulled up to the “Little Lion” orphanage. The kids instantly came running to the gate, calling out, “Roberto, Roberto!” As Roberto Pena opened the gate, the kids bombarded him with hugs and kisses.
Our team of 16 was next to receive an abundant welcome from the children. Although we were complete strangers, because we were Pena’s friends, we were now theirs, too. Pena told us in tears, “If I think about all the kids in São Paulo that need help, I’ll go crazy, so I just try to help one child at a time.”
Roberto Pena founded the nonprofit organization Seeds of Hope to reach out to São Paulo’s orphans and homeless youth. Working with groups from campus ministries and churches, Seeds of Hope gives teams the opportunity to serve Christ among those who are easily forgotten. As Americans, our tendency can be to try and fix problems quickly—adoption being our first thought in this case. However, most of the children have been entrusted to the care of the orphanages by families incapable of taking care of them, yet the parents retain legal rights to the children, making adoption virtually impossible. These same children are expected to move out of the orphanage when they turn 18. Often with no alternatives, they are faced with the choice to survive through prostitution, drugs and theft. The only real hope for the thousands of children living in orphanages is education—empowering and skillful education.
Through building and opening trade schools, Seeds of Hope will provide education and practical job training to São Paulo’s at-risk youth. Seeds of Hope will open the doors to its first trade school this fall. Pena’s dream is to open up these schools all over the city. With the help of volunteers from both Brazil and abroad, the school plans to offer classes for print design, carpentry and woodworking, cosmetology, information technology, and computer maintenance and repair. These classes and others that will be developed will give those who have left the orphanage the skills needed to live a life beyond what the streets offer. Although São Paulo has many places that offer a higher education, these trade schools will be the first within the reach of these orphans. Pena’s dreams are big, the progress often seems slow and the goals are long-term—but the impact is immeasurable.
Throughout our lives God places opportunities in front of us to participate in the things that are near to His heart. Both the Old and New Testament remind us over and over again that God is pleased with those who actively seek to care for the needs of the hopeless and helpless. The Gospel wears skin when we give our lives to lift someone else up. Pena is bringing skin to the Gospel among São Paulo’s discarded youth and allowing others the opportunity to participate in his story.