Group supports center in Ecuador

FAIRPORT — The group of travelers had barely set their suitcases down before Anne Costigan was into them, seeking the hundreds of pounds of art, school and hygiene supplies they had brought.

Parishioners from Fairport’s Church of the Assumption had donated the supplies to the Working Boys’ Center in Quito, Ecuador, in response to a plea from Costigan, who spent a year in 2010 and 2011 volunteering at the vocational-training center. Supplies ranging from construction paper to toothpaste were delivered by Assumption parishioners Pat de Souza, Brooke Thiroux, Anne’s mother Pat Costigan, and Marilyn Thayer, who visited Anne Costigan at the center.

The group couldn’t even carry all the items collected, so a group of McQuaid Jesuit students and chaperones brought them during an annual service trip to the center in May 2011.

Members of that Fairport group recounted their October 2010 trip during a presentation Aug. 16 at Church of the Assumption.

"No matter who you are, and whether they have known you for a day or a year, they are looking for somebody to hug," de Souza said in describing the warm reception she found at the center.

The Working Boys Center dates back to 1964, when Jesuit Father John Halligan, a Bronx native, was told to analyze the situation of street children in Quito, which then was a city of just more than 350,000 people.

He found spare space for a ministry in an attic of the Jesuit Church of the Compania, and he reached out to about 200 boys who spent their days shining shoes on Quito’s streets. He offered them three meals a day, classes in a grammar school, training in shoemaking and carpentry, and some basic medical and dental care. They were required to save money and create budgets so they could learn how to work their way out of poverty.

The program began to expand greatly with the addition of Sister Miguel Conway, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who began working as codirector in 1967. Now Sister Conway and Father Halligan are cogeneral directors, and the other directors at the center are Sister Cindy Sullivan, who joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary while working as a Peace Corps volunteer at the center, and Carlos Gomez, an alumni of the center.

Now the program has expanded to encompass three facilities that provide services for entire families, including a child-care center, an adult-education program, training in technical areas, expanded health programs, a business school and a nutrition program for children younger than 3.

Participants must meet requirements that include daily showers at the center, which Anne Costigan noted is not a luxury, but a lesson in self-worth.

"You are only as poor as you make yourself," she said. "You must shower every day because you are worth it."

At the center, students can learn cosmetology, industrial sewing, sales and marketing, carpentry, plumbing, baking, auto mechanics, industrial mechanics and toy making. The center’s beauty salon, restaurant, bakery and store are frequented by community members. After graduating, alumni can seek small loans to start businesses. On the weekend, center members improve each other’s homes through work gangs, called minga.

The program’s results are long-lasting, according to a 2007 survey, which found that 95 percent of male graduates and 83.5 percent of female graduates ages 15 and older were employed, despite high unemployment and poverty in Quito.

Love is one of the reasons the center is so successful, said Clare Costigan, 28, who served at the center several years ago. She said that at first she relied on hugs and smiles to communicate with center participants, since she arrived knowing only how to say hola in Spanish, and many of the center’s members spoke Quechua as their first language.

"There were worries, but you just loved each other, and everybody was like a family in the center," she said.

Anne Costigan said that when families start at the Working Boys’ Center, they have nothing, and they often are squatters. When the center is closed, such as on Sundays and holidays, families often don’t eat. Gifts are shared among the entire family, she said, noting that the handmade blankets that the Fairport group brought were shared throughout the year by families.

Clare Costigan noted that by the time her sister, Anne, now 25, started volunteering at the Working Boys’ Center, the people in need that Clare had taught had worked their way out of poverty and into homes with kitchens, furniture and running water.

It is up to each family to use the values they learn at the center to improve their situation, Anne Costigan said.

"They hand you all the tools, but it’s your responsibility to get yourself out of poverty," she said.

The Costigan family said they hope to continue to support the center’s work and are planning events in the area to raise funds for the center.

"My heart is at the center," Anne Costigan said. "I believe so much in what it does. It is an amazing place."

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