MERIDEN, Conn. — Years ago, before Dr. Nicholas Perricone was a leading dermatologist, he read an article about the plight of street children in Brazil.
He determined back then that if he ever had the financial means, he'd do something about it.
After medical school, three New York Times No. 1 bestsellers and a thriving business venture, the Dr. Nicholas V. Perricone Project for the Children of Brazil has become a reality, beginning in Sao Paulo.
The Perricone Project, or Communidade Perricone, aims to get the most vulnerable children off the streets, break the poverty cycle and help restore family life.
The groundbreaking for the $11.1 million pilot project, which Perricone was jumpstarted with a $1.35 million project, takes place in mid-September in Sao Paulo's poorest neighborhood.
The first of four buildings will be a Mao Amiga (Portuguese for “Helping Hand” ) School that should be fully operational for 1,700 students by spring 2005.
“The sooner the better,” Perricone said.
The step begins what's projected to be a succession of Perricone Projects. “We want to build 10 communities in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and a couple of other cities,” explained Father Philip Cascia, pastor of St. Anthony's Church in Prospect, Conn., and the doctor's long-time friend and associate.
“Each project has the potential of changing the lives of one million children,” Father Cascia said.
The project took off quickly when a firmly resolved Perricone told his plans to Father Cascia on New Year's Eve 2003. Perricone had traveled many times to Brazil while researching and developing natural “cosmeceutical” products as a clinical and research dermatologist.
Father Cascia introduced him to the Legion of Christ religious order, and Perricone chose the Legionaries to run the project.
“I think the Legionaries is an amazing group,” Perricone said, noting their dedication and spirituality. “I have my idea, the concept, some money to finance it and Legionaries to implement the program,” he explained from his Connecticut base. “So it's a wonderful synergistic relationship we have to bring this concept to reality.”
Each Communidade Perricone will consist of four elements built “with the whole idea it's going to take a generation to break the cycle,” Perricone said.
The Casa Mamma Rose, a maternity safe house, will give at-risk, pregnant teen-agers a residence for two years with educational means to get out of poverty. In this area of Brazil, 70% are pregnant by the time they're 14.
Secondly, the Casa Segura para criancas em perigo safe house will provide a family atmosphere for 100 at-risk children, with the priority going to the youngest boys and girls.
Thirdly, a Mao Amiga School will educate 1,700 students. And a Centro Catharina (Katie Center) will be a community center with sports, recreational and cultural activities for children, and skill development and parenting classes for the neighborhood.
There's no more challenging place to start than in Sao Paulo's Itapecerica de Serra section, an area of some 3 to 5 million people that has the highest murder rate in Brazil.
The Brazilian government granted land for the projects.
“My priorities were to start with the youngest and most at risk, get them off the street first, and go from there,” Perricone said. “My caveat — I was going to give money to take five kids off the streets immediately.”
In March, five children from 6 to 7 years old went from the streets to a beautiful residential facility run by a respected Catholic agency in the area.
“We don't know if they would be alive if he didn't help them,” Father Ernesto Escobar said of the five girls. Father Escobar is the Legion's director of evangelization and strategic planning in Brazil and will oversee the project locally.
“The biggest problem they have here is a lack of education, which means poverty,” Father Escobar said. “Dr. Perricone understands we have to show the people how to ‘fish,’ but because we have such an emergency situation here, he knows you have to give them a fish sometimes.”
Luanne Zurlo, head of the World Education & Development Fund, a New York non-profit supporting education for the poor in Latin America, is another member of the Perricone Project team and an expert on the Brazilian situation.
“The problem is not orphans,” Zurlo said. “Very, very few street children are actually orphans.” The critical problem is teen pregnancy, children having children.
Poor quality schools, often run on double and triple sessions, compound the problem.
Children wind up on the streets most of the day and can end up begging, selling drugs or worse.
Zurlo said the Perricone Project's four-element approach to address the cycle at every level is the most effective way to help.
“The school is the backbone of it,” noted Legion of Christ Father Juan Sabadell.
Father Sabadell is senior advisor to Connecticut-based Catholic World Mission, which raises funds for Mano Amiga schools and other missionary projects (www.catholic worldmission.org).
He points to the success of a Mano Amiga school in an impoverished neighborhood in Leon, Mexico. Over the course of 30 years, its students entered the workforce or went on to higher education. Now that they're businessmen and professionals, they themselves fund the school.
“That really turns around whole neighborhoods,” Father Sabadell said. “That's the ultimate effect you're trying to have … for it's a middle class with a stable family structure that prevents children from going to the streets.”
A Blessed Model
Father Cascia will be Perricone's liaison with the Legion of Christ for all the daily details and operations. No stranger to the international scene himself, Father Cascia was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2000 for his international good-will Intersport USA program which President Ronald Reagan had encouraged him to start.
People in America and Brazil buying Perricone's natural skin and body-care products will be helping to develop Communidade Perricone through percentages of sales earmarked for them.
With headquarters in Meriden, Conn., a store opening on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in October and a new book out this fall, Perricone should be headed toward his long-term goal of putting more than $100 million into the program, which he believes will affect a million lives there.
He's funding the project 100% at this point and is looking to get other people and organizations to help.
“I know there are so many open-hearted, generous, caring people out there who are not aware of the situation,” he said. “I hope it will inspire them to direct some of their resources to the project and praying more money comes in to accelerate this.”
There's yet another behind-the-scenes key player in this project— Blessed Mother Teresa.
“I think it was her hand guiding us to bring this whole project together,” Father Cascia said. “The project came out of nowhere, and I believe it was Blessed Mother Teresa who inspired us to make it happen because she was on both our minds.”
Perricone said, “Through the power of her incredible energy and dedication, always assisted by prayer, she had accomplished things that changed the world.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.