The Orphanage in Sabará

There’s a happy little stream gurgling by alongside the road, and tropical trees laden with flowers dot its banks. The lushness of nature stands in sharp contrast to the poverty it surrounds.  Dilapidated and crumbling houses are perched precariously allover the otherwise picturesque hills. The scene is beautiful, in the kind of way that makes your heart wrench. As we hurtle along down the bumpy road, my guide is teaching me the names of the favelas, the poor neighborhoods formed by these broken down buildings. As he tells me their names, he also gives me little facts about them. “There are a lot of drug problems in that one.” And “that’s the favela where they have no water.” He is taking me to a small city outside of Belo Horizonte called Sabará. Sabará is a beautiful colonial settlement, one of the oldest in the state. The irony is that Sabará is famous for the gold that is mined there, but the people are some of the poorest in the country. As we turn off of the gravel road and onto a dirt path, the car is suddenly surrounded by children. We’ve made it.


My guide is José. He and his wife run a small orphanage.  With a tiny house, some farm animals, and one helper, the two of them are caring for eighteen children. The children range from one to thirteen years in age, and they are all very excited to see their new English teacher. I am immediately surrounded by smiling faces and tugging hands, and for the first time since leaving the city, I feel that I can do this.


The children are here for a variety of reasons. Some are orphaned and others were abused, but the majority have been abandoned by their parents. Despite the tragic history these kids share, the orphanage is a cheerful place. Children’s drawings cover the walls, toys are strewn all over the place and someone is always laughing. I try desperately to keep up with the rapid fire Portuguese, explaining that yes, I’m from the United States, and yes I’m going to teach English, and no, I’m not from California or a movie star. Everybody has a million questions about the US, and everybody wants to be sure I’m coming back.


This is my first trip to the orphanage, and I am mostly here to work out logistics. The classroom is large, but bare. There is no blackboard, but José thinks he can get one. The students have paper and pencils, but I will need to bring anything else I want them to work with. Over lunch, we decide that I will come twice a week. I will teach the little kids in the morning before they go to school, and then stay to teach the older kids in the afternoon when they get back from school. The little kids are too young to learn much, so we will work on basic phrases and play lots of games. The older kids don’t know any English either, but they should be more serious students. There are a million things to do before I give my first lesson on Thursday, but after seeing how excited the kids are, I find that I am excited too. I could be taking on more private students and earning a lot more money, but volunteering with these kids reminds me why I wanted to teach English in the first place: because it’s fun.