A Garden in the Desert

Three sleek, fat Humbolt penguins tilt their heads and watch curiously as visitors pull up to the Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy) School in Zapallal, a shantytown that sprawls across the barren desert hillsides 37 kilometers north of Lima. Penguins are an unusual sight in the Peruvian desert; however, this is no ordinary school and the children, like these ocean birds, thrive.

What makes this school unique? A strong sense of community and solidarity. "It is like a second home," said 14-year-old Jaime Tito.

"We each have very little time to make a change in the universe and we are called upon to use our energy to the best of our ability," said Brother Paul McAuley, principal. McAuley, a 47-year-old La Salle brother, has set out to provide opportunities for Peruvian young people. Faith and Joy schools (a Jesuit initiative run by different orders in different locations) exist throughout Latin America, but the Zapallal school has a unique curriculum.

While Peru has experienced macroeconomic improvement over the past seven years, with single-digit inflation and sustained growth in nearly all sectors, daily life continues to be hard. Un- and underemployment among young people ages 14-24 is running at 12.7 and 50.7 percent respectively, and more than 45 percent of the population is living below the poverty line.

However, "positive energy attracts positive energy," said McAuley, who began with 100 students in four classrooms made of tightly woven straw mats in 1990. Today the school has 1,250 students and 41 teachers, and the complex includes brick classrooms, a laboratory, workshops ranging from animal husbandry to carpentry, sturdy young trees, animal pens, corrals, ponds, and a hydroponics complex.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1997
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