Marco Paulo

National Youth Leader SOS Children's Villages in Cape Verde
photo: © 2018 Stefan Lechner Photography

The smiling SOS girl became an inspiration and a reference point: keeping the memory of my SOS sister

I tell a story about my SOS sister, whom I would like to call "smiling girl". We grew up in the same house in the SOS Children's Village of Assomada.

An SOS childhood
My name is Marco Paulo Monteiro. I am 32 years old and I grew up in the SOS Children's Village of Assomada from the age of 4 years. Assomada is located on the biggest island in Cape Verde. I remember arriving as though it was yesterday. It was like entering a very new and different world. I came from a poor family: my mum could not care for me because of her difficult social situation. My father too. He did not give me his name and even refused to assume his role as father and help my mum care for me. We were three brothers living together, but according to my mother, she could not care for me because she had to go to work. We were at great risk because sometimes she used to leave us alone in the house and many times she arrived back late at night and we were hungry, crying.

This is why I said that in 1989, when I entered SOS Children's Villages, I entered a new world. I had a new home: family, brothers and sisters, and a village and community. I could join children who had the same story, and some of them had an even harder story. I really had the best childhood. I could play, have food on time, feel safe, experience trust and, most of all, I had my SOS mother's love. I could feel, "now I am at home".

I lived in family houses until I was 14 years old. In 1999, I moved from the family house to the youth house, which is in the village too. That was a new step in my life. I started an intensive preparation for independent life. At that time, at the age of 14, I could cook, iron and clean my room and other's spaces on my own.

Meeting a girl who turned into an inspiration
While living there, the smiling girl was admitted to the same house where I lived. I remember her face perfectly from when I saw her for the first time. She was simply smiling. I frequently visited my family house and normally played with other brothers and sisters and she was always smiling, even though sometimes you could see that something was wrong, she kept smiling. As our SOS mother was religious, I used to participate in church activities. After I left SOS Children's Villages in 2006, the smiling girl invited me to become her godfather at her religious confirmation and I promptly accepted. She used to call me "padrinho", meaning godfather. The smiling girl had some minor special needs. These were not visible, but you were aware of this when talking to her.

I continued my life outside SOS and I left my special SOS sister. You know, as a former SOS youth, one of my dreams was to work in SOS Children's Villages one day. For me, this would be the best opportunity to try to give back all that SOS had done for me for many years. In 2012 I was working in another NGO, but SOS Children's Villages Cape Verde invited me to work as a national youth leader. My dream came true and I had a chance to stay close to the smiling girl.

I remember the day that I was invited. My older SOS sister, Maria José, now working as national advisor of human resources and organisational development in SOS Children's Villages Cape Verde, came to me during an activity with all the former SOS youth. She said she would like to invite me to join as a national youth leader, to coordinate a semi-independent programme. It was so good. I did not think twice. I said "yes", I accepted. I started working for SOS Cape Verde in July and in August 2012 I had to prepare the 1st edition of a national youth training for independent life. That was my first challenge. In the programme department we therefore prepared everything as a team. This training is similar to a camp were all the young people aged between 14 and 24 who have grown up in SOS Children's Villages are divided into two important groups. They go away from the village and stay in a camp in Praia for training for two weeks. Every July and August all the young people from 14 years upwards in the care of SOS participate in the summer camp called "Summer Youth Training for Independent Life". We offer basic training and orientation to develop their employability skills. We discuss how to plan their lives, how to write their CV; we visit learning institutions such as universities, professional training centres, companies. We also organise talks with entrepreneurs where they can discuss and evaluate the way SOS Children's Villages is working with them e.g. we discuss what the young people do well and where they need to improve.

For me, this was one of the first special moments I had as an SOS co-worker. This kind of activity with the young people allowed me to learn a lot from them and to get to know them well. Moreover, I do not know why, but I remember that smiling girl. She always came to me and talked to me. I also remember asking her during some conversation between us, whether she felt ready to leave SOS? She said, "Yes, because I will stay with my biological mother."

The strength in smiling
In the next year, 2014, she left the SOS Children's Village Assomada. One month later, her biological mother died. Even now I remember the day when the SOS youth and I went to visit her. She kept on smiling even though I could see in her eyes how sad she was.

During her semi-independent living period I visited her in her biological family as part of one of my main roles. She was able to attend some specific, additional professional training. She attended counselling, and I followed her closely. The smiling young girl, my SOS sister, started to face problems. It was a new and strange phase in her life. She also had a special health follow-up from our side and from the health services because of some health problems. It was difficult for her to get a stable job because of her disability. We helped her to start her own small business in street vending, along with her eldest sister. One day, I remember, I found her working. She was happy and said she liked it because she started to earn her own money. She said that she wanted to leave her biological sister and start living alone. Her sister agreed but on the condition that they should be close to each other. Like all the other semi-independent youth, I used to visit her regularly. The smiling girl gave up selling because she was pregnant. She joined her boyfriend and they lived together.

Learning from others
For me, the positive thing is that she was a determined girl, even though she faced many problems: she lost her mother at a critical moment in her life; she had to face trouble with her biological brothers and sisters; and she also separated from her boyfriend. After starting her own family, she was almost unable to keep her baby girl because she faced some court cases. She called me several times, we talked and messaged on Facebook, and she regularly visited her SOS mother in the Children's Village of Assomada, just to talk and have counselling. Her SOS mother and I talked a lot about my SOS sister. She saved her money and could build her own little bedroom, just to have privacy and an independent life. Unfortunately, she did not have many more chances in life to keep fighting. She died unexpectedly due to health problems while she was asleep.

The mission of SOS Children's Villages
For me, smiling girl represents all other SOS brothers and sisters, in my country and even those around the world, who have faced different kinds of difficulties after leaving SOS Children's Villages, and are now successful in their lives and have their own family and job.

SOS Children's Villages must continue to be a safe home for all young people. SOS Children's Villages must continue to be the place where young people who leave the caring environment of an SOS Children's Villages programme for their independent lives can come back to re-establish their spirit, share their experience, talk to their brothers and sisters and to their SOS mother or to co-workers about their lives. It has to be the space where young people can go with their children, wife or husband. We must also keep this promise to all young people, offering a safe home. We as an SOS family must keep this as one of the main and special values.

Despite the changes we face, there are also positive things. I think we have to be careful as a family not to lose our soul, not to lose our treasure. Many young people who grew up in SOS Children's Villages programmes around the world lose their biological family - and as I am one of them - I believe that is why God gave us an SOS family. It must be our reference. Yes, a reference that inspires us to keep moving.

Marco Paulo

is national youth leader for SOS Children’s Villages Cape Verde at their national office.

Marco has worked for SOS Children’s Villages since 2012. He grew up in SOS CV and that is where he learned values that now lead him in life. He strives for humility, empathy and team spirit. He believes in the power of trust when working with colleagues, children and youth. Through working with disadvantaged families and communities, he has learned to see life in a different and more realistic way.

For him family is the basis of everything. He is a father of three children. Having his own family gives him the chance to strengthen his confidence and to have a safe harbour. His commitment is to pass on confidence, security and love to his children and enable them to pass it on to new generations.

Marco spends most of his free time with his family. He enjoys watching videos and playing computer games with his son. He was born in the city of Praia, the capital of his country, in a peripheral borough. In 1989, when he was 4 years old, he was welcomed into the SOS Children’s Village of Assomada, a rural town, located 43 kilometres from the capital city..

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