“This is not on your TripAdvisor,” Stephanie Bruchou told a bus full of expat volunteers as they approached Ciudad Oculta, a villa in Buenos Aires. Bruchou runs the nonprofit organization Send a Child to School (SACS), and the volunteers went to the villa that day to distribute school supplies to children in need.
Ciudad Oculta in Villa Lugano is best known for housing the Elefante Blanco, a large abandoned building which was supposed to be the largest hospital in South America – and was the inspiration for a movie in 2012. Built in 1923, it was to house state of the art medical facilities, including a research center for tuberculosis. However, between its construction and the early 90’s, the hospital was twice abandoned, and it eventually transformed into one of the most prominent villas, or slums, in Buenos Aires. Hundreds of low-income families filled the abandoned building, adding to the villa already created by occupants of another abandoned building: an old leather factory.
The building has since been cleared out, but Ciudad Oculta still exists in Villa Lugano. Hidden to passersby on the surrounding main streets, the villa remains home to many low-income families.
The group, mostly comprised of foreigners, arrived in the villa to volunteer in tandem with a local community organization, The Cielo Foundation. Led by the Villa Lugano resident Cielo and her adult children, the foundation operates study centers, day cares and food banks for their neighbors.
“The goal,” Cielo said, “is that our kids can have a better future than the one we had.”
After the dictatorship ended in 1983, Cielo decided she wanted to rebuild her community. She started by opening a comedor, a place for kids to eat for free. She began serving 25 kids in the early 90’s. Now, she serves 450 children.
“At that time, my kids were very small, and it was impossible to leave this place,” Cielo said. “So, I decided to make the community a better place for my kids to grow up. I have three children and another nena de corazón [a common phrase that means an adopted child] who joined our family very young. My kids were all able to study. One of my daughters and my son are teachers now.”
SACS was originally founded in 1999 by several expat women, including the wife of the then-Australian ambassador to Argentina and the wife of the president of Exxon Mobil. They started with a toy drive at Christmas, but then quickly realized that they could donate items with a goal of more sustainable change. Then, they began donating backpacks full of school supplies, items that would directly contribute to the students ability to achieve success in their futures.
Now, SACS volunteers hails from countries all over the world, including the US, Canada, Brazil, Uruguay, Honduras, Ecuador, Israel, and India.
Stephanie Bruchou, the current president of SACS, is originally from the US but now lives with her family in Argentina. Though the group is comprised of mostly expats, they always work with organizations like The Cielo Foundation which are run by people who live in the villas to ensure they’re donating what the kids need most.
“We ask the teachers what the kids need,” Bruchou said. “For example, one year, the teachers said they needed color pencils, and not crayons, so we switched to colored pencils.”
For many children, these backpacks are the first item that’s truly theirs. Many of the children come from very large families, and most of their belongings are shared with other siblings, Bruchou said. SACS prints and laminates labels with each child’s name and school on each backpack, not only to ensure that backpacks are delivered to the correct student, but also to provide students with the feeling that they own something that will contribute directly to their education.
“For them to get their backpack with their name on it, with the school supplies that they need for that year, it’s priceless,” Bruchou said. “You saw their faces light up today, when you said ‘oh, Azul!’ and she got her backpack.”
Mabel, a mother in the villa, said her son takes excellent care of his, and knows it will last him years.
In 2017, SACS donated 2,167 backpacks and school kits to low-income students in Buenos Aires, ranging in age from kindergarten to high school.
“We give back to Argentine what they give to us,” Bruchou said. “Which is love and companionship.”