At the end of the 1990s a project providing children with extra support with their school work was started in Badalona for children at risk of social exclusion. It was initiated by Badalona City Council Social Services Department as part of the Urban Plan, and was integrated into the city’s educational support network. The project received advice and guidance from Caritas.
This was the origin of what today has become the Fundació Privada La Salut Alta (Salut Alta Private Foundation). The Roger Torne Foundation collaborates with La Salut Alta and is familiar with the valuable work that they do. It seemed important to us that their voice should be heard via Inspira. To do this, we got in touch with Silvia Casado, Director of the Centre Obert (Open Centre), so that they could tell us about how they started and about the work that they do.
A few minutes before the centre opened we went along to the Fundació Privada La Salut Alta’s headquarters in Autonomía de Badalona Street. We had walked from the Fondo underground station. “It’s the best way to get here, apart from by motor bike, as it’s very difficult to park around here”, said Silvia Casado when we arranged the appointment by phone, “although it’s a twenty minute walk from the station to the centre”. We could see the cultural diversity of the neighbourhood while we were walking to the Centre. There were people from many different countries in the streets, shops specialising in African, Asian and South American products, women wearing veils, Sikhs with turbans, people talking in various African languages, and so on.
Silvia arrived straight after us with Montse, another teacher, and they took us into the Centre. The entrance was decorated with mobiles made from figures cut out of cardboard. On the right we could see various offices with their doors painted in vivid, almost luminous, colours which made the place feel warm and lively. We went into Silvia’s small office, commenting on how bright and cheerful the Centre seemed.
“The Salut de Badalona parish has a chapel here where a project providing extra support for children with their homework was started by
Social Services. There was a lot of demand and it was difficult to give the project continuity. Because of this, in 2004 we decided to set up the Centre Obert and to do this it was necessary for us to establish ourselves as a foundation. This is how the Fundació Privada La Salut Alta started.”
“Is it true that at the beginning the project was financed through small contributions from people in the neighbourhood?”
“Yes,” Silvia remembered, smiling. “At the, beginning, it was those people from the chapel who were committed to the project who obtained the first funds by selling 1, 2, or 3 euro raffle tickets to people in the neighbourhood. They raised around 1,300 euros and that was our first contribution. Afterwards we had to contact private foundations, institutions etc to ask for donations. Nowadays 90% of the Foundation’s funding is private. This year, for the first time, the Generalitat (the Autonomous Government of Catalonia) gave us 10,000 euros and Badalona City Council gave us 1,000 euros.”
“Once you had formally established Centre Obert your work started. What does it consist of exactly?”
“Centre Obert is open in the afternoon to provide extra support for children, who are at risk of social exclusion, with their school work. The children come to us via Social Services, from EAIA (The Children and Adolescents Team) or from the neighbourhood schools themselves. From Monday to Thursday we help them do their homework. We also teach them personal hygiene. We play more on Friday. We play with them, we wash our hands, we have afternoon tea together and in this way we show them basic good behaviour: using a plate, a serviette, not eating with our mouths open. Then we clean our teeth as another activity. Very occasionally, the older children go to see something in Badalona or in Barcelona and the younger
ones stay in the Centre.
The children come to the Centre when they come out of school and they are here until half past seven. At half past seven we start to throw them out”, Silvia explains, smiling. “By eight o’clock they’ve gone”, she adds, smiling broadly.
“Yes, many of them don’t want to leave. They like it here. They enjoy it.”
“How many children do you have here? How old are they?”
“We have forty two children from six to sixteen years old. And we are waiting for two more. We have children from the first year of primary school upwards, as children younger than that have different needs that we can’t meet here. A child’s age is an important criterion for joining the Centre”.
“That’s a lot!”
“Yes, they generate a lot of paperwork, reports, etc because normally we go and talk to each child’s parents or guardians, and we carry out follow-up, support the family etc.”
“Is there a lot of demand for children to come to the Centre?”
“I think there are already forty two on the waiting list and the schools continue sending people and the social services keep asking for places for children. Thirty eight are attending the Centre. The remainder belong to a group receiving educational support two afternoons a week. If we had more volunteers, we could form another support group for six to eight more children, if only for two afternoons a week, because there is a constant demand.”
“Is it difficult to find volunteers?”
“Yes, because we are a long way from anywhere. It is difficult to get here by public transport and it can take an hour on the underground depending where you come from. That’s a problem. Sometimes we can get a Baccalaureate student to come if we ring schools that give credits for social service. And after that there are people in the neighbourhood who help us, but it is clearly not enough to satisfy the demand.”
“What do you need to be a volunteer?”
“You need to be able to work with children to give them extra support with their school work. For example, helping primary and secondary school pupils to read and write. We also try to ensure the volunteers get some type of training to be able to guide the children in their habits, their behaviour, to know what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. We have all sorts of volunteers, from retired people to psychology students.”
“What is the relationship like between the centre and the neighbourhood?”
“It’s good. We did have some difficulty because people thought we were going to provide meals or something like that, but when they saw what an educational centre is they were fine. The Foundation has been a reference point here for some years, because there is no one else in the whole area that does the same sort of work. Families that can pay for after-school activities can make use of what is provided by the schools. But for those who cannot pay, who are in the majority, the street is the only alternative for the children. And in this area there are no playgrounds or gardens or open spaces for them.”
“Not every weekend. We try to do a couple of excursions a month, but there’s a limit to what we can do as we cannot pay for a coach, so it depends on where we can go by public transport. For example, we still haven’t been to COSMOCAIXA, because it would take us an hour and a half to get there and the same to get back. Last year we were able to go to the house that you have in El Surell as the Roger Torne Foundation provided the coach. Now we would like you to finish the Casa de l’Aire project so that we can go back.”
“Do adults come to the centre as well?”
“Yes. In the morning, two days a week, we have started giving Spanish classes for immigrant women, but there has been so much demand that we have had to pass on a group of men to the La Salut parish. We also run a basic computing course another two days a week and now we will extend it to two more days, as there is so much demand.
In addition, we run a talk for the families on education or health once every four to six weeks.”
“Seeing the progress the children make. When you see what a particular child was like when they arrived and how he or she is now, it is very satisfying. The personal contact with them, with their families, seeing that they trust you, that they appreciate someone is listening to them, or that they are relying on us. That’s nice and it is gratifying. And after that, seeing the genuine hope of the volunteers and the team of teachers, and being able to help them day to day.”
“The children have problems of social exclusion…”
“Yes. This is a neighbourhood of social exclusion. Its origins can be found in the emigration from Andalusia and Extremadura in the 1950s and 1960s . The immigrants built the houses themselves with no urban planning. For many, progress means leaving here. But now it’s immigrants from outside the European Community that have moved in. They come from Morocco, Asia, India, China and so on. There are no libraries, no post offices and no taxi ranks in the neighbourhood, and in a way these things typify the conditions here.
And obviously, if the children don’t come here, the only alternative is being on the streets. We work with the City Council on the Environment Plan, which is concerned with helping areas of Catalonia with their special education needs. We are trying to speed up these administrative procedures, but clearly policy is one thing and the current reality is another.”
There are also complicated family situations such as mothers who are raising their children alone because they are separated. And there is a group of children that are being followed up by the EAIA, and others who are not being cared for by their parents but by another relative or centre instead.”
“Yes, of course, but they gradually become accustomed to the situation and their coeducation helps them to adapt. We have to strike a balance between respect for their culture and what is necessary for different cultures to live together in our society. For example, last year there were boys who were surprised to see a male volunteer washing the dishes, because in their homes men don’t do this type of work. But the children quickly get used to it, as do the mothers. The mothers see it and it seems fine to them. What they do in their own homes is one thing, but here it seems normal to them.”
“Do the families cooperate with you?”
“They are all different. There are some that help with absolutely anything we need and there are others that never come. One mother helps out as a volunteer and others come from time to time, for the Christmas party and suchlike. And we know which ones we can ask for help. There are others who gradually become involved because it provides them with a place to go as well.”
Silvia invited us to look round the centre. She showed us the classes where children are given help with their school work, the computing classroom, the multi-purpose room where the children play and have their afternoon tea. We also visited the small kitchen and the chapel upstairs, where the project started out.
The teachers started to organise the tables for tea. As the children arrived they became interested in us, asking to see the camera we were taking photographs with. They asked us all types of questions and in turn told us where they were from.
It was time to wash their hands, a simple activity but both necessary and educational.
We had tea with them, with an improvised celebration for those whose birthday it was that week. They all sang happy birthday together and blew out a candle.
The children competed for our attention, showing us their classrooms and telling us about their families. They told us jokes in which the protagonists were Rumanians, Moroccans or Spaniards.