How one Brazilian is changing her community using puppet shows and recycling

Heroes of the community: Iara Oliveira and Alfazendo

At Airfox, we believe that access to financial services is a basic human right. Our drive to create an easy-to-use, low-cost yet high quality digital banking option for the financially underserved pairs with the work done by individuals who are helping others in their communities through life-changing initiatives.

These “Heroes of the Community” are creating a brighter future for their neighbors, and it’s time their inspiring stories are shared. Please join us in celebrating Iara Oliveira from the Cidade de Deus community in Rio de Janeiro.

Iara Oliveira with students at an Alfazendo workshop.

Meet Iara

Iara Oliveira was born and raised in “Porta do Céu” (which approximately translates to English as the “Door to Heaven”), one of the original 14 areas established in Cidade de Deus.

Cidade de Deus is a community located within the neighborhood of Jacarepaguá, in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Violence has plagued the area since the ’60s to such an extent that the city was featured in a Brazilian film in 2002.

Movie cover for the Cidade de Deus film portraying the violence the area is known for.

Cidade de Deus was originally created by the Rio government to move inhabitants away from the populated center of the city and more towards the outskirts of Rio. Its status as a “neighborhood” in Rio should mean the area receives government attention and public services, yet the violence and rebellion in the community has caused the Rio authorities to turn away from the area.

The community was historically divided into 14 areas, aligning with the 14 communal toilets shared by everyone who lived there. Before the first official houses were built, each bathroom belonged to a group of community members. These groups grew, and today the areas still hold the names given during the early days.

An early scene in Cidade de Deus, when the first homes were beginning to pop up.

Iara grew up in this community and is familiar with her community’s residents and their needs. She founded the NGO Alfazendo in 1998 to meet the unique needs of the children in Cidade de Deus.

Children working with Alfazendo instructors during a music class.

Empowering through education

The first issue Iara aimed to tackle with Alfazendo was educating the residents in her community. Iara knew both children and adults struggled to receive sufficient education, often having to drop out early to get jobs and support their families.

To combat this issue, Iara’s first initiative with the NGO focused on giving underprivileged kids an opportunity to obtain an education, while still finding time to earn money. Her “Pré-Vestibular” course was the beginning of the Alfazendo organization’s efforts to improve the quality of life for its residents, and now the education initiative continues to offer options to young adults of all ages.

Young students at an Alfazendo-organized session learning from a puppet show. Organizers use alternative methods of teaching to engage students while teaching life-improving skills.

“According to data from the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), 60% of the youth of Cidade de Deus leave school after completing primary school, or even before completing it,” says Iara. “The reason is always the same, they need to work to help support their family or to support themselves. The Alfazendo organization opens a range of options for their students by providing the children with an education and also connecting them with a job that fits into their schedule when they are old enough. The program is more than just combining employment and education, it also creates a balance of skills they will have for life.”

Hygiene initiatives

One of Alfazendo’s biggest projects was “Eco Rede”, which services over 7,000 people per year. By teaching people in the community basic aspects of hygiene, health care, and waste management, the project aims to create a healthier and safer space for people who may not know how they can help themselves.

“Eco Rede” coordinators at the Alfazendo organization headquarters.

To teach community members these skills, training sessions are set up by “Eco Rede” coordinators and social workers familiar with the areas where the classes are taking place.

“We do a ‘conscientious’ training first. We discuss why it is important that everyone cares about the environment, focusing on the role it will play in our children’s lives,” explains Lidiance, a coordinator for the “Eco Rede” project. “After this training we conduct dynamic workshops where we create dolls, cars, and other products with recyclable materials. Many attendees leave with new perspectives that they then pass along to the people in their social circles. The outcome is great for the community!”

Providing recycling opportunities

Another one of the projects initiated in partnership with multiple schools and daycare centers in the community is “Eco Pontos”, a program for teachers and students to collect recyclable materials instead of throwing them away. The “Eco Pontos” program first provides training classes to the students and teachers and then places collection bids at the school or daycare center. When the bins fill up, “Eco Pontos” organizers are contacted to pickup and distribute the recyclables to collection centers and other organizations that will transform these items into useful things.

An example the receptacles given to classes and organizations to collect their recyclables. Once it fills, “Eco Pontos” is contacted to pick it up, and they will reuse the items for other purposes.

This project not only offers the community with cleaner living conditions, but also benefits the environment by reducing the amount of trash that has to be disposed of. The “Eco Pontos” project also provides jobs for the “recycling bin” collectors, cleans up the streets and public water systems, and creates overall awareness for the importance of recycling.

A holiday decoration created from the recycled materials gathered by Alfazendo. For more examples of what the recycled goods are transformed into visit the group’s Facebook page.

Recognition leading to new programs around Rio

The overall success of Iara’s Alfazendo project has been noticed and recreated by other communities in Rio. One of these replica organizations is “Morro do Timbau” in the Maré neighborhood of Rio. The Maré version of the project has already had over 1,500 people attend their school that focuses on literacy in the community, and they expect to have over 3,000 people by the end of the year.

Since its foundation, Alfazendo has been recognized by major organizations for the work the project does to improve the lives of people in Cidade de Deus, including recognition from the UN during the Rio+20 event in 2012.

The future for a minimally funded NGO

Currently Alfazendo’s biggest challenge is to consistently run its initiatives without a large budget. They continue to promote interactive learning methods within communities and help improve the quality of life of the residents of Cidade de Deus.

A bulletin board filled with messages from young students. “All kids should have a right to education”, “All children should be protected by their society”, and “All kids should have the same rights no matter their age, race, gender, or sexuality” are some of the messages.

To help with funding, the Alfazendo organizers have started to create jewelry, handbags, toys, and other products made from recycled material. These pieces are then sold in a bazaar along with other donated objects and clothing. The organization also runs raffles and receives a monthly donation of R$10.00 from followers of the project. These initiatives don’t make much, but it’s enough to serve basic needs like electricity and water for the organization’s main building.

Alfazendo organization logo from the group’s Facebook page.

Iara’s organization has provided hundreds of young people in Cidade de Deus with an education along with teaching them about recycling and good hygiene techniques. Her work continues to reach community members who haven’t been provided equal access to basic public services, and her innovative education techniques are inspiring those around her every day.

To learn more about Alfazendo and Iara Oliveira’s work to provide members of her community with the resources they need, visit the organization’s Facebook page.

We will continue to share the stories of different “Heroes of the community” in Brazil throughout the upcoming months. For more information and updates about the initiatives discussed in the series, as well as general Airfox updates, find us on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.



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Accelerate financial inclusion in emerging markets using technology built with trust and inclusion.