SAO PAULO — "My name is Daniel Garcia and I'm 18. I love reading Folha de S. Paulo! Today, I read an article about women unsung heroes, and I believe that my own mother fits that category perfectly. Marlene Garcia is 59, she's black and she used to be a cleaning lady. Every day, without any help from the government, she feeds 230 hungry favela children."

This is how Daniel started telling us his mother's story, in an email sent to this newspaper on March 8 — International Women's Day. A few days later, on a Monday, we interviewed Marlene while she stirred a wooden spoon in a pan that contained 10 kilograms of rice and minced meat. She was in a hurry: The children were already hungry.

From her big shed in the Morro da Macumba favela, south of São Paulo, where 10,000 people live, Marlene's goal is to fill the stomachs of children who had been looking for food in trash cans. Marlene and her children were familiar with that kind of hunger. They had once experienced it themselves. To kill the hunger (matar a fome, a Brazilian idiom) so hunger can't kill anybody around here anymore.

"I feel a lot of pity for the children. It started with nothing, I don't know why. I see poor, hungry children, I want to bring them here, help them," she says. For more than 20 years, Marlene worked as a cleaning lady, but in the second half of the 1990s, she worked in a bakery. One day in 1995, she starting handing out leftover bread. A huge queue formed. Maybe that's how it all began.

Marlene Garcia, 59, cooks and cares for 230 children every single day — Photo: Marlene Bergamo/Folha

With the help of her daughter Vanessa, 33, she took the children to an evangelical church. She arranged theater and music classes for them. "But after a while, I understood that what they really wanted was to eat, because they weren't getting enough food at home."

So Marlene started asking former employers and shopkeepers for food so she could give it to hungry children. Their numbers quickly rose to nearly 200. In the late 1990s, the Morro da Macumba favela was torn by war between traffickers. Anybody who lived there at the time can tell stories of how the children were being used as soldiers or human shields. "I went to talk with one of the traffickers' leaders and I asked him never to use children again," says Vanessa, who was encouraged by her mother. "He accepted."

Like bullets, hunger also killed. In the 2000s, one little boy was collecting empty cans in an avenue at Interlagos, the São Paulo district the favela is part of. He was 13 and was responsible for his younger brothers. His mother was an alcoholic. He was run over by a cab driver who was late to a job interview. Two other children died in similar circumstances. "I saw kids begging for fries at McDonald's, going through the local supermarkets' trash," Marlene says. "I saw that the children were going to die."

In 2005, Marlene and Vanessa found a shed in the favela that was being used by traffickers to hide people they abducted. "We talked to the traffickers, told them about our project," Vanessa says. They agreed to leave the site and the shed's official owner also gave in to Marlene's determination.

Originally from the Minas Gerais state, Marlene didn't get to study a lot. "My father had 12 children, so I didn't get a chance. At the time, girls couldn't read or write to their boyfriends," she says. At 15, she went to live with one of her sisters in the São Paulo favela. She got married at 16. "I had nothing else to do," she says, laughing. She gave birth to three children in a shack that lacked basic sanitation. She now lives in a small apartment on the favela's outskirts.

Marlene spends her everyday at the shed from 8 am to 10 pm. She knows the names or surnames of every single one of the 230 children she feeds as if they were her own. In turn, they treat her like a mother.

There are still hundreds of homes without basic sanitation in Morro da Macumba. The inhabitants have redirected a small stream to get water. Many of the children Marlene feeds don't have a bathroom at home — they use cans.

Outside one of the schools, located on the edge of the favela, one 14-year-old girl says her friends abandoned her when she became pregnant. A teacher shows us pictures of the school's infrastructure: broken toilets, leaks, classrooms that are stay locked for fear the ceiling might collapse. Some of the students were even attacked by bees. Vanessa, who used to go to this school, says that "our community has been abandoned, politically."

A Sao Paulo favela — Photo: Milton Jung

Some of the hungry children are the sons and daughters of drug dealers or addicts. Or, sometimes, both. "We help the poorest children. It's not a child's fault if his or her father is a gangster. All children are good people," says Marlene. She visits the families to make sure that the children she helps are truly in need.

The project receives support from many people: business owners who pay the bills and give them some food, friends who help with the cleaning, and the NGO Pastoral da Criança ("Child's Pastoral"), which provides half the food supply.

The children, who spend four hours a day at the shed, are tutored in Math and Portuguese. Volunteers also teach them a little English and French. They spend most of the time playing. There's a huge shopping mall in the area but few public places for children to play.

Many grownups who Marlene used to feed have returned to give her a hand, and many of them have gone on to study at college.

Twelve years ago, the project became an NGO, Reviver (live again), which doesn't get a cent of funding from the government. An Evangelical Christian, Marlene draws a Biblical image to talk about her NGO's name: "Reviver is like being in a valley of dry bones. You find the strength to get up. So you rise. You live again and you go and look for a job." Daniel, Marlene's son, the one who wrote to us, was nowhere to be seen while we were in the favela. That's because he has found a job.


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