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All great works come from processes that have hit the nerves of the human being. The story of José María Vélaz is no exception. Chilean by birth and from a Spanish family, as a child, he had to leave with his mother for the peninsula and his education was linked to the schools of the Society of Jesus.

 

During his youth, after a few years in the university, he decided to become a member of the above mentioned religious congregation and since then, similar to the founder of the order (Saint Ignatius of Loyola) he would become a pilgrim and a builder of hope. In 1946, he was sent to Venezuela, when he was 36 years old and 18 as Jesuit.

 

The Latin American reality would soon mark a new itinerary in his mission. His contact with poverty and the scandalous conditions of marginalization and exclusion for most of the country would continue to affect him throughout his lifetime. When he was working in the school San José de Mérida, he started the first experiments that would finally lead to the creation of a network of schools in the areas surrounding cities and in rural environments.

 

In 1960, this network was named "Fe y Alegría" (Faith and Joy). Obviously, the stories and tales of the events leading to its creation normally tend to praise the hero´s figure. Vélaz easily fits the profile of leader and savior of the marginalized. However, the work of this Jesuit was to guide the poor to channel their legitimate demands and hopes. In addition, there is no doubt that the contrast with the richest members of the population, made more remarkable the needs of thousands living at the margins. Not one of the schools would have been possible without the determination of the final beneficiaries who worked to push the project forward.

 

All of these parents and children were the real administrators of one of the most important educational works in Latin America which today extends to other geographic areas across the world. In fact, in the memory of this exciting story the name of who we could consider the real founder of Fe y Alegría is preserved, a worker named Abraham Reyes. Vélaz and his group of collaborators walked through the suburbs looking for a place to locate the first school, until they found this individual.

 

It is said that Reyes and his wife had been building the walls of their home for eight years, and the day that they were told about a school and education for children they gave up these walls and ceiling simply for their own happiness. There was no inaugural act, nor red tape with a ribbon to be cut, not even a commemorative plaque.

 

Even if it is difficult to believe, this is how the story gives us the most moving and revolutionary episodes. It is difficult to avoid comparing the story of this Venezuelan couple with the one from Nazareth. A carpenter and a humble young woman would have the marvelous responsibility of giving birth and bringing up Jesus Christ. The one who would end up hanging on a piece of wood would put the Good News in the heart of his disciples; the promise of a "Kingdom" built on justice, love and solidarity.

 

The gesture of the Reyes family was just the beginning as other families would soon join in the story. The will to get out of a situation of misery, the unstoppable desire to subvert exploitative conditions, the goal to defeat the system and be the true agents of their own lives; all this invigorated each one of the steps that made Fe y Alegría possible. A large group of men and women, workers, who sacrificed and were determined to give their children a different future built upon overcoming difficulties.

 

This was a forceful answer to a society and a State that had forgotten them. A commitment to freedom through education, the greatest and most powerful heritage that children could receive. It is important to note that the first years required a work based on pooled resources and solidarity.

 

Vélaz, who had been involved in the Catholic University, created along with a group of university students the first contingent of people who were ready to dream together with those who were marginalized. This is the other half of the success story. Nothing is truly possible and long-lasting if most of the actors are not involved in a deep transformation of reality.

 

The first years of Fe y Alegría would have the virtue of bringing together all those who were moved by the tasks of Christian service. A true sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom now and among us.

 

By 1964, there were already 10 thousand students in Venezuela and the acceptance of the experience allowed the model to be replicated in other countries with similar success. In a period of two years, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Central America and Colombia would join the adventure.

 

Thereafter, the experience would continue growing and multiplying the hopes of those living in the most secret and deep corners of America. This is when one of the most well-known quotes of the educational movement began to take root: “Fe y Alegría starts where the pavement ends, where drinking water does not drip, where the city loses its name.”

 

This way, the movement defined its action as a commitment to Integral Popular Education. Education for the poorest and above all, high quality education. Fe y Alegría does not want to be a simple band aid on a giant wound, nor a simple repair to cover up a devastating reality. The movement is committed to providing those with the least opportunities and resources an education that ensures that they are the main agents in the transformation of their reality. In line with Paulo Freire, a Fe y Alegría education can be considered an education that leads to freedom.

 

This is a clear expression of Fe y Alegría’s Christian roots and the commitment of the Latin American church during those first years and today. The preferential option for the poor is the roadmap. This is an option that is committed to human dignity and to setting up a new order based on equality and respect.

 

After more than 58 years, Fe y Alegría continues to be a model, especially in alternative education. After the birth of the Fe y Alegría International Federation in 1987, the task to consolidate much more coordinated work started, setting and keeping a common line of action.

 

Loyalty to the origins is a key premise and from that perspective Fe y Alegría continues to grow worldwide. In 1985, work started in Spain, in 2001 in Italy and in 2007 it reached the African continent with Fe y Alegría Chad. There are no fewer than 19 countries across three continents.

 

The data (2011) is astonishing and reflects the reach of the project without question and the huge challenges that it will have to face during this new millennium.

 

This has been further combined with the participation of 930 religious people, sharing along with Jesuits the determination to push forward this mission. This is about half a century full of hope and commitment; a time in which we have seen many communities transform themselves around a school. Neighborhoods without a sewage system, with roads made of dirt, and millions of people living at the margins have transformed into organized communities, with urban infrastructure, better economic conditions, and most importantly, we see people with the sign of dignity on their faces.

 

It would be ridiculous to attribute all these changes to Fe y Alegría, but there is no doubt that the school was a key structure to make all of these changes possible.