After graduating from GW in 2005, Brazilian-born Rudy Mareno sold everything he owned and embarked on a trip to his home country. Taking whatever means necessary to get there – including bus, train, boat, horseback and hitchhiking – he faced Hurricane Katrina, crossed the U.S.-Mexican border unnoticed, lived in jungles, deserts and Indian reservations and crossed guerilla territory.
After all that, Mareno founded the Inter-American Development Fund, a nongovernmental organization, in Bolivia six months ago. The goal of the fund is to build educational, health, recreational, sports and cultural infrastructure in Latin America.
Like Mareno, Rachel Glickhouse, a 2007 graduate from New York, is also working at a Latin American NGO. The co-founder of Balance: The GW Ballet Group is using her love of dance to help better the lives of children living in Brazilian favelas, or slums. She volunteers for Ballet of Santa Teresa, a school in Rio de Janeiro that teaches dance to underprivileged children. Since its establishment in 1999, the school has evolved into a general safe haven and learning center for 150 poor children and their families.
Mareno and Glickhouse, both of whom majored in Latin American studies, have devoted their young adult lives to bettering deprived areas of Latin America. Their efforts have seen great success and their organizations are making strides each day, they said.
Achievement was no small task. Their paths have been filled with obstacles.
After his trip, Mareno decided to start an NGO in Brazil’s poorest state, Maranhao. He spent three and a half months interviewing people and learning about the way they live. He spoke with housewives, businessmen, tribe leaders, politicians, teachers, doctors and the vice president of El Salvador, who spoke about the need to increase the opportunities for women.
Despite the combination of Mareno’s education, heritage and insights gained from his journey, he said he was unprepared for the bureaucracy of a public employee in a Third World country. After gathering a small group of volunteers, Mareno faced two months of paperwork, after which the organization had not moved one iota and he was close to running out of money.
Mareno then abandoned the effort in Maranhao and moved to Bolivia, where his family now lives.
“As the adage goes,” he said, “no one is a prophet in his own land.”
In Bolivia he decided to create an NGO for all of Latin America, not just for one country. Building upon his original notion for Brazil, Mareno created the Inter-American Development Fund, which works with impoverished communities to establish projects that will help citizens gain a higher quality of life.
Since its establishment, the fund has received almost 50 project proposals. It is presently working to build Bolivia’s first beach soccer arena, which will benefit close to 700 children in Cochabamba, a city in central Bolivia.
“The idea is to remove these kids from the streets . and encourage them to practice sports, learn values, discipline, teamwork, the streets.and encourage them to practice sports, learn values, discipline, teamwork and . improve oneself in life,” Mareno said. The arena will be completed this upcoming May.
Glickhouse also faced challenges and rose above failures.
During her senior year at GW, she applied for two fellowships to fund a project in Latin America’s largest favela. She was a finalist for both but did not receive either.
“I was devastated,” she said in an e-mail, but she still went to work for Ballet of Santa Teresa, an NGO located in Brazil. Glickhouse, like Mareno, is still abroad.
The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are the poorest parts of the city and the most violent, Glickhouse said. Plagued by a drug-fueled war, the favelas are routinely invaded by police, leading to shoot-outs that often kill innocent bystanders.
Upon its establishment, Ballet of Santa Teresa was located in a favela near the neighborhood of Santa Teresa in a basement with a concrete floor.
During shoot-outs the instructor would have to dive on the floor and make sure all of the students were safe, Glickhouse said. The school is now located in Santa Teresa, a traditional neighborhood that is safer.
At the school, where Glickhouse teaches ballet and serves as an international coordinator, most of the students – who range from three to 18 years old – are from favelas. It can be hard to teach her students at times, Glickhouse said. But she takes their behavioral problems in stride when she puts them in perspective. The school, she said, serves “as the major educator for these children not only in terms of dance and culture but also in good manners and becoming citizens.”
“Even on the bad days, I feel one hundred times more gratified teaching them than teaching English to middle-class businessmen,” Glickhouse said, referring to her secondary job as an English instructor.
Ballet of Santa Teresa also offers classes in music, art history and theater. It also offers English classes, tutoring, preventative health education and classes for mothers. To lessen the long waiting list for the program, there has been some interest in expanding to other parts of the city, but the lack of money and space prevent this.
Being at Ballet of Santa Teresa is “a dream come true.” Glickhouse said Sometimes I like to think of myself as bringing Balance to Brazil!”