RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil- International aid usually means assistance with the basics – things like clean water, food, shelter, and safety. However, there are a number of organizations around the world that are providing international aid in another form: adventure.
Of course, if kids are malnourished, they need food, says Asa Firestone, co-founder of the Centro de Escalada Urbana (CEU). But beyond the essentials, “adventure, risk, exposure to the outdoors are necessities to kids that a lot of people overlook.”
CEU is a climbing school for at-risk children in the Rocinha favela of Rio de Janeiro. The main goal is to use rock climbing and other mountaineering activities as a tool to help improve the quality of life for Rio’s at-risk youth and their families.
“I’ve seen adventure change my life. Climbing especially is something I really connected with. It gave me focus and direction,” Firestone said. He believes climbing has the power to do good for kids in Brazilian slums as well. Climbing helps create a safe space and a trustworthy group of friends for at-risk kids. It helps develop self-confidence, as well as a more health conscious lifestyle. It also opens up income opportunities for kids interested in becoming local guides – jobs that are often reserved for the privileged classes of Brazilians and foreigners.
Setting up an organization in Rocinha has not been a straightforward undertaking. Firestone and his partner, Andrew Lenz, have spent years tracking down funding for the program and working out logistics. To make matters more complicated, Rocinha has a long history of drug trafficking.
During the 1980s, drug trafficking became deeply rooted in the Rocinha community. The war on drugs launched by the U.S. put a lot of pressure on cocaine trafficking in countries north of Brazil. This created a need for new markets and trafficking routes, and the slums of Brazil provided those. By the 1990s, Rocinha was trafficking more cocaine than any other favela in Brazil.
Drug traffickers continued to rule Rocinha into the early 2000s, when Firestone first visited Rocinha. At the time, Firestone was travelling around Brazil when he became interested in climbing the granite mountains just behind Rocinha. Unfortunately, locals warned Firestone not to go. Two different warring drug factions controlled the area.
Since Firestone’s first visit in 2004, a few things have changed. The leader of the Rocinha drug faction was captured in 2011, and the Rio government has launched a program to regain control of several favelas in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. These changes have made Rocinha a safer place for an organization like CEU to operate, however there are still unique challenges.
One such challenge has been building an indoor climbing wall. The wall will enable CEU to run year-round – right now heat in the summer and rain in the winter make climbing difficult during many months of the year. Additionally, a climbing wall will provide a safer, less stressful environment for kids to learn the basics of climbing. After raising enough money and completing the design for an indoor climbing wall, Firestone was all set to start construction. Unfortunately, a spike in drug violence led the government use Firestone’s space to build a new jail.
But that was just a minor setback. He continues plans to relocate the climbing wall, and in the meantime, has launched an outdoor lifestyle brand, Beyond Gear, that donates 10-25% of profits to CEU. Beyond Gear sells jewelry and climbing gear reflect the whole vision behind CEU: that adventure can be used for good.
– Claire Karban