Give equity in chances
ASOCIACION AZUL SOLIDARIO
Azul | Argentina
Ashoka Argentina sent an open offer to different changemakers asking who would be interested in meeting us. Veronica reacted almost immediately, inviting us for breakfast in her beautiful country house in Azul – a small city one day hitchhiking from Buenos Aires.
I came to Azul from Buenos Aires after I got married, many years ago - says Veronica Torassa, founder of Asociacion Azul Solidario -. What called my attention first was that people say hello to each other. In big cities it never happens! When I was very young, I was the one to say hello to everybody and my sister hated it. People mistaken us and she felt obliged to say hello as well. She told me: stop with that! When I came here and everybody was saying good morning, hi, I thought: it is incredible, this is my place!
And she did find her own place in Azul.
When I arrived in Azul, I went to a small market, next to our house. In Buenos Aires I used to volunteer in a hospital for children. I asked the man in the market:
- Is there any children's hospital in Azul?
Ok, so I went to the hospital, I opened the door, I met a woman, who later became my close friend, and I said:
- I just moved to Azul, I want to help with whatever is needed.
My husband was waiting in the car and I completely forgot about him. She started to introduce me to many people, we had a sort of meeting and suddenly I saw popping up from the door the head of my husband's head, looking for me. He waited in the car for more than a hour.
Already after these few stories you can try to picture Veronica: a bit crazy, tiny woman in her late 60ties, full of contagious energy. She speaks about what she did as it was the most obvious thing in the world: „I just asked the man in the market...” And this is just the beginning.
This is how I started, being a volunteer in a children hospital. At the same time I left my CV in different schools. I got the position as sociology teacher in an institute for gym teachers. Sociology with their students, Monday morning, 7.30 am... Just imagine. But destiny... 4.30, the first day of work my husband took me to the bus station, after a few changes I reached the place. All the boys waited for me to sleep. But on the way I saw a very peculiar building and I asked the bus driver:
- What is that?
- That's the prison.
Very interesting. On the way back I went out of the bus and got to the prison. I said:
- Here I am, I'm a sociologist. I want to learn.
I started in April as a volunteer and in November they gave me a job. I stayed for 5 years.
Apparently a lot of things in Veronica's life finish as suddenly as they started. That was the case for the prison period.
During those years we had tremendous problems in Argentina. I was working only with common prisoners, never political ones. But one day, in September 1978, I got asked to interview one veterinarian. He was a political prisoner. In my opinion, I wrote, he has to get free. The chief of prison asked me:
- Can you change the opinion a bit? It's too... definite.
- Are you asking me to change what I wrote?
- Yes, you cannot just say he has to leave.
- No, no, no. Not only I don't change what I wrote, I leave this place.
I came back home and said to my husband: I don't have a job anymore. It was an important salary, we already had the second daughter, it was not that easy.
Veronica came back to the hospital to volunteer and soon the director proposed her to create a prevention program for people attending public hospitals. Although she had no idea about medicine, she started to research and at the end she created the first prevention program, which included vaccination, regular check-ups, etc. But it was not the only field she was active in.
My husband was an adviser of a farmer association. Every 4 years they were organizing a national congress. In 2004 it was organized under the name „Another Argentine is possible”. That sounded inspiring, I decided to join. They spoke a lot about education, especially of secondary school dedicated to agriculture. When we came back to Azul I started to think: wait a minute, we don't have any secondary school on the topic in Azul. And we are a rural area! We definitely should create one. My husband just said: another thing, no, stop! But on Monday I went to the education office of the municipality and talked to the person in charge. I also got interested in other schools. I knew something about those in the city of Azul, but nothing about those in the rural areas. That person showed me a map of 31 schools, 14 of them in the city. 31?! [Azul district has about 65 thousand citizens, 90% of which live in the city, Ed.] What?! But how come? What is going on there?
Veronica discovered that most of those schools are extremely small, just few students, and additionally really far from each other. She got intrigued.
- What do they learn?
- Well, very little, how to read and write.
- And what else? No gym?
- No gym.
- No English?
- No English.
- And how many students are all together?
Not many, but for me one is enough to care.
- But why don't they have a gym?
- For having a teacher they have to be at least 15-20 students.
Ok, let's think in numbers. I started to analyse how many kids there are and which are close enough to come together at least once a week, so I can say to the Ministry: here are 20 students, we want a gym teacher, an art teacher, etc. Today, after many years of work, only 3 of those schools are outside our network.
All was possible thanks to a very hard, persistent work.
After diagnosing the situation of those schools, very isolated, with a small number of students, I started to speak with them to see which could be united. But how to support this idea financially, find money for transport? I spoke with the mayor, a very young guy: “They aren't votes, from a political point of view they are not interesting. But they are children. Our, Azulian children.” He talked to the local government. They accepted that 1% of what farmers pay of taxes would be dedicated to the effort of moving children. We started with the first group of schools, then a second, a third. When we got to number four, money was over. I went to the province and asked them for more, having already proved the concept. I was always a volunteer, my husband said: do what you want, I can afford your car and fuel. I was very grateful, my hospital salary was not enough. After 5 years, I was 60, I decided to retire and dedicated myself fully to this.
Suddenly an army of ants attacked us. We were sitting on the terrace, eating a typical Argentinian breakfast – cafe con facturas, coffee with a sort of mini-croissant -. Completely lost in conversation, we didn't realize that millions of ants surrounded us and all the sugary food on the table. Veronica within a few seconds took control over the situation, cleaning the table and inviting us to the garden, where we continued this amazing journey.
We organized many different activities for the kids, sport, art, circus, etc. A lot of children were brought to other villages by some mothers, who then had to wait four hours for them to finish the classes, doing nothing. Incredible. I started to think: what can they do, so they use their time, learn something and earn a bit of money? In this zone we have many sheep. I started to ask for wool and I got a teacher to teach mothers how to weave. We started in 2007. At the moment we have many nice products, which we are selling through different channels.
Another challenge Veronica decided to tackle was computers. Nobody wanted to provide informatics classes to children in rural areas. That time not even in the cities kids had access to this kind of education. But Veronica, as always, didn't accept a no as answer.
I was teaching at the university, so I asked my students who would like to teach computing in the rural areas. I got quite a lot of volunteers. Then I manage to get second hand computers from an organization called Equity Foundation. Ok, now Internet. I went to the Province with my husband and representatives of municipal education. They asked:
- You want the Internet in the countryside?
- Yes. The children need to be connected.
That time we have been given the name of Cervantes city, because we have one of the biggest collections of the Don Quixote.
- Because we are the only Cervantes city in Argentina and I want our students to get in touch with children in Spain to discover more about Cervantes and Spanish students to get to know Argentinian authors.
It came to my mind like that. My husband looked at me: where did you get that? I guess politicians got curious about what was going on in Azul.
- Ok, let us think about it.
That was the 27th of November, I will never forget. Then I went to my daughter for Christmas. The 23rd of December they called back.
- Veronica Torassa?
- I'm an engineer. I call just to let you know that in February we are going to put the Internet in all schools in Azul.
I started to shout. My daughter thought I'm going crazy.
But that was still not enough... During the following years Veronica managed to take some of Azulian students to Spain and invite Spanish children to her own house, starting collaborations among different schools of the two countries. Next big step will be to replicate this system. It's not easy, schools in rural areas are not really interesting for those who provide money. But Veronica is unstoppable. Whatever comes to her mind, it will sooner or later become reality. And she has been like this since her childhood.
I was falling in love with things, but I was also very persistent, when something attracts me I keep going.
Persistence is very important, but it's not the only thing needed if you want to bring a change.
You have to build the capacity of frustration. If you have very low frustration capacity you will never overcome adversities, and they are everywhere. Of course it's easier when you are in two. That's why my husband is so crucial. He is always present, in the background, supporting. Always there to say: tranquila [take it easy, calm down, ed.].
Today her husband is the main support, but many, many years ago another person with one decision changed the course of her life.
I was a very difficult, naughty child. A strong leader, but in the naughty way. I was going to a catholic school and we were divided in three houses: blue, red and yellow. Each house had its own captain, chosen by the nuns. In November 1964, in front of 1000 pupils, they announced:
- Next red captain will be Veronica.
- Veronica?!?! The naughty one?
I think they made a very good decision. It was sister Francise, the one who realized that my life depended - I get very emotional every time I speak about it, although so many years have passed - my life depended on how I could handle my leadership skills and she pushed me toward the good way.
Sister Francise gave Veronica the chance. And at the end this is what counts – giving chances, opportunities, regardless of people using them or not.
The aim is to give equity in chances. I don't know if children from rural areas will continue studying but at least they have the same chance. We won't be all equal but we can have the same opportunities.
More about Asociacion Azul Solidario: facebook/Asociacionazulsolidario