Enriching Others, Enriching Yourself

View from the Vidigal favela - by John Briley

I was in Rio de Janeiro last month and went into one of the city’s favelas, slums known primarily as vast zones of poverty, drug dealing and subsistence living. I went into the Vidigal favela on my own – not on the guided tours that typically bring tourists into the slums – because I’d heard of an unusual new guest house where tourists volunteer to help kids in the community.

This is an audacious operation: Rio’s favelas, first settled more than 200 years ago by African slaves, have been neglected and openly disparaged by city officials, non-favela residents and foreigners alike as dangerous urban cauldrons that do little more than breed crime.

Now a foreigner, Austrian Andreas Wielend, has opened the Casa Alto Vidigal guest house and invited other foreigners to pick up some of the extensive slack left by local officials.

On a wall inside the casa, which sits atop a hill with jaw-dropping views of Ipanema beach and the azure sea beyond, is a sign-up sheet for volunteers. Among the activities are English lessons, soccer practice and tutoring to help kids advance in school. Volunteers include travelers (most are in their 20s and 30s) from England, France, Sweden and Spain.

“This is a different experience and it’s not for everyone,” said Jorge Melendez, who helps Wielend run the guest house. “People typically stay for a few weeks at least, to get a feel for the community and really work with the kids.” The casa is simple, although artsy, with a handful of brightly painted rooms, a communal kitchen and living room, and a bar/patio that is the scene of once-a-month parties at which favela residents and tourists dance and drink far into the night.

So far, Melendez told me, the kids are loving the programs, the community is appreciative and even the rougher elements in Vidigal are letting the volunteers work without hassle.

It is nice to see Wielend making such a personal investment in a community that doesn’t show up on tourist maps of Rio. I realize few readers of this blog will decamp to Vidigal for the volunteer experience of a lifetime, so I’ll remind you that you can find volunteer opportunities much closer to home through Create the Good.