Stories of Change: Helping to Make Dreams a Reality in Rural Brazil

Marcos is the oldest of three boys, raised by a single mother. Growing up in Santana do Deserto, a small rural town outside of Rio de Janeiro, he had few opportunities to learn and to plan for his future. For Marcos and many young people in underserved communities, Brazil’s education system is inaccessible and inequitable. The situation has only worsened over the past year because of COVID-19, and the consequences are far-reaching. Communities are experiencing increased poverty, food insecurity, and gender inequity, and they have even less access to jobs and education than before.

Like many of their peers, Marcos’ parents only completed primary school. Marcos excelled at school and had dreams of pursuing higher education, learning English, and traveling. But he didn’t think these goals would materialise; such opportunities didn’t exist in Santana do Deserto. However, when Marcos was 13, staff from Onda Solidária visited his primary school and began to open up a world of possibilities for him and other young people in his community.

Onda Solidária provides young people in low-income neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais with life skills training, sports activities, and career coaching. Onda Solidária means “Solidarity Wave” and articulates the organisation’s firm belief in the ability of young people to collectively drive positive change. Marcos first participated in Onda Solidária’s programmes in 2013, when EMpower began its partnership with the organisation. He took part in many of the programmes that EMpower has supported over time, including Onda Solidária’s most celebrated “Programa Transformação.” This career readiness programme combines sports, English language training, and career counseling to ensure young people can thrive. The programme addresses some of the major challenges young people in Brazil face, including: the tendency to drop out of school as they get older, high levels of crime and violence, teen pregnancy, and limited job opportunities.

Reflecting on his early involvement with Onda Solidária’s football team and English courses, he says the experience was rewarding: “I was discovering new cultures and opportunities. Onda Solidária helped me to believe in myself and gave me courage to reach for my goals.” Marcos is proud that he received a scholarship to a reputable secondary school in Brazil and became the first of his family to graduate secondary school.

His story doesn’t end there. In 2016, with help from Onda Solidária, he received a scholarship to study English and traveled to the United States. Through this experience, he realized the importance of education and where it can take you. When he returned to Brazil, he decided to share his skills with other young people in his community. He began to tutor younger students at Onda Solidária, acted as a youth mentor, and eventually began taking on leadership roles at the organisation. With Onda Solidária’s programmes, Marcos notes that young people in the community have “more possibilities to dream and make their dreams come true.”

This year, Marcos achieved another major milestone: he was accepted into the University of Brasilia and is be the first person from his family to go to college. Because of the pandemic, Marcos is attending his first semester of college virtually, which has allowed him to continue to be a leader in Onda Solidária programmes. He has been involved with developing some of the new pandemic programming, including doing live interview sessions on social media featuring local community figures.

When the university reopens, Marcos will move to Brasilia to continue his studies in international relations. He will work with Onda Solidária in a new capacity as the organisation’s first board member to have graduated from its programmes. Continuing his relationship with Onda Solidária, Marcos says he looks forward to further empowering young people, sending waves of positive change through the community.

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