Nine-year-old Adriana Aparecida de Silva puts down her sewing and giggles shyly at the stranger who wants to talk to her. Yes, she likes working here. She works four hours a day, six days a week; she earns 6,500 cruzeiros (nearly $3) a month, but when she learns how to embroider, she'll make more. Her father doesn't live at home, so she and her two brothers are the family breadwinners.
Next door, a 10-year-old boy shovels crude clay into a refining machine. The lad who sweeps up is six years old. The dispatch department manager, 18-year-old Vilmar de Oliveira Ribeiro, is proud of his responsible position, reached after eight years in the factory.
A return to the dark days of workhouses and exploited child labor?
On the contrary. The Boa Nova Ceramics factory where these children work represents a ray of hope for the youngsters - conservatively estimated at 10 million in number - who fend for themselves on the streets of Brazil. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund cites this project in Ipameri as a successful alternative to lives of begging and stealing for children whose families cannot support them.
''We have learned that the children need an activity that first of all gives them an income but also educates them,'' a UNICEF official says. ''They need a hand, not a handout.''
Those who work with the children say that gainful employment is the key to helping street waifs. Attempts to put them in orphanages with full-time schooling have generally not been successful.
Since 1982, the number of programs aimed to help street children in Brazil has grown from 70 to nearly 200. The programs range from factories and employment agencies to simpler projects helping children make and sell popsicles , maintain parks, and clean streets. These programs also encourage couples to play the role of unofficial godparents to children involved in crimes but released on parole. In Sao Paulo, about 80 percent of the current prison population are former street children, Sao Paulo's Catholic University reports.
''In Sao Paulo there are perhaps 3 million children who spend most of their time on the streets, without parental protection. Only 1,200 of them are known to our people,'' says a social worker.
The need to help such children in Brazil - Latin America's most populous nation - is widely viewed as enormous. Rapid industrialization and consequent migration from the country to the congested slums of big cities has produced a burgeoning number of children whose parents find they cannot provide for them.
While UNICEF estimates the number of street waifs across the nation at 10 million, it agrees there may be more. Some social workers say there may be 25 million.
Stop your car anywhere in Brazil and a pair of pleading eyes will gaze in the window asking to guard your car, clean your windshield, or carry your bags. At traffic lights, kids will try to sell you flowers or ask for money.
The story is the same throughout Latin America, where altogether an estimated 40 million children live on the streets. They shine shoes, sell chewing gum, shoplift, pick pockets, prostitute themselves, sometimes kill - whatever is necessary to survive. Some go home at night, many more sleep out, with newspaper for bedsheets, all their worldly possessions for a pillow.
Brazil's Globo TV network estimates that in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo alone there are 4.5 million abandoned or semi-abandoned children. Some have lost all contact with their parents, others go to the streets looking for a way to help their poor, often one-parent families.
''After the second or third child, a man finds it impossible to support his family, so he abandons it - and starts another. It's very common in Brazil among the poorer classes for a man to have two or three families and not be able to support any of them,'' says Margarida Fernandes Horbylon, founder of the Boa Nova factory.
''The underlying factor is absolute poverty,'' says William Myers of UNICEF in Brasilia. ''It's said to be a bigger problem in South America than elsewhere, but perhaps it's just more perceived here, more talked about.''
Asked by Brazil's government to look for workable solutions, UNICEF toured the country in 1982 and found some 70 programs, all of them independent of and unknown to the government. Working with Brazil's Foundation for the Well-Being of Minors, UNICEF publicized five of the most successful programs.
The Boa Nova factory here in Ipameri, some 140 miles south of the capital of Brasilia, is one of those five. The shoe industry in this dusty, rural town of 20,000 people in the deep interior of Brazil closed in the early 1970s. Concerned about the increasing number of street waifs, a group of local people decided to do something about it.
Ms. Horbylon of the Boa Nova factory recalls that they began by teaching pottery to two boys. Today the ceramics and handicrafts factory employs 290 children on a half-day basis. Local schools cooperate with flexible hours and monitor the children's progress.
All the children earn a basic wage plus bonuses keyed to productivity and skill, school and work attendance, and good behavior. The project also operates an employment agency for some 370 children working part-time as shoe cleaners, gardeners, baby sitters, and office boys.
Another of UNICEF's publicized projects, the Salao de Encontro (Meeting Hall) , outside Brazil's third-largest industrial town, Belo Horizonte, runs a workshop for children to make traditional furniture, ceramics, carpets, and textiles. The other three projects UNICEF is publicizing help children find work in the community.
All the programs provide access to health services, some basic moral education, and ensure a degree of schooling. But the emphasis is on employment.
A government program is not the answer, observers say. It is not flexible enough to deal with the varied needs; it is too bureaucratic and could be affected by a change in government. But those involved with the projects say, ''We want the government to help those who are already helping the children.''