Argentines pitch in to help their neighbors

Volunteerism is up as Argentina's ongoing economic crisis hits hard

Claudia Franco surveys the rusted shacks and muddy, potholed streets of Villa 24, a shantytown in the heart of Buenos Aires. Gathered around her are barefoot children and the lined, worn faces of the elderly.

A year ago, Ms. Franco started cooking for some hungry neighborhood children. Now she provides two meals a day for 65 of its dirt-poor residents.

"It feels good to help, good to see a little child coming with a plate for something to eat," says Franco, a passionate, determined mother of seven. "I don't have a penny to spend, I live by barter, but it's gratifying to help."

Franco is one of the many thousands who have felt compelled to act as Argentina's four-year recession bites ever deeper. Since the country's crisis hit new lows last December, volunteers from all levels of society have flocked to offer their skills, their food, or their clothes to anyone in need.

"We've seen an explosion of solidarity in recent months," says Silvia Baez, a volunteer who manages a network of soup kitchens in several of the capital's slums. "There's a lot of empathy for the poor because the inequality in Argentina is now extremely visible. No one is safe from it any more, not even the rich."

Argentina's seemingly endless recession has sent the jobless rate soaring above 20 percent. Each month, 60,000 wage earners lose their jobs, and most have little hope of finding new work.

Government figures show that poverty levels have rocketed to 45 percent from 15 percent in less than a decade. Each day an additional 8,000 people slip below the poverty line.

The country's 23 provincial governments operate a basic welfare safety net but charity organizers say it is woefully inadequate to cope with the scale of Argentina's crisis.

As a result, some 400 soup kitchens have sprung up in recent months in Buenos Aires alone, and hundreds more in other cities, according to charity workers. Most start spontaneously and remain independent of any organization.

"The typical pattern is that a natural leader emerges, usually a woman, who simply decides to prepare food for those around her," says Ms. Baez. "Sometimes they can get resources from the local authorities, but mostly they plead, petition, or ask anyone who might be able to help."

Across the country, individuals are donating food and clothing in unprecedented quantities. Neighborhood grocery stores and national supermarket chains regularly donate food, both on a large scale through charitable networks, and to individuals in immediate need. Many companies have also tried to expand outreach and donor programs, despite an abrupt downturn in profits.

Newspapers and television stations, too, have joined in, helping charities to reach a wider audience by offering free space or airtime for appeals or charitable success stories.

Other Argentines have flocked to volunteer for charity groups such as the Solidarity Network, whose assistance ranges from arranging the donation of a single wheelchair to finding sources for a three-month supply of insulin for as many as 1,000 diabetics.

"A few years ago, most Argentines thought 'charity' meant sending money to Africa," says Juan Carr, who set up the group seven years ago to put the needy in touch with potential donors. "Now they see it means looking out for the family next door."

Some 2,000 volunteers already work for the Solidarity Network in Argentina, with additional volunteers in Madrid, Paris, New York, and Sao Paulo. Mr. Carr says he still receives hundreds of calls each week with offers to help.

"Most callers are classic middle class," he says. "These are people who became very prosperous over the past decade, but they also became self-centered. Now they realize that they owe something in return."

Despite the upsurge in donations and volunteers, real hunger has appeared for the first time in a country that prides itself on being a prosperous and very European outpost in South America.

"Even during Argentina's hyperinflation crisis of 1989, we rarely saw malnutrition, even among the poorest," says Juana Cevallos, an adviser to Catholic charity, Cáritas Argentina. "Now we're seeing a lot of people who lack the most basic food and minerals."

Vast armies of the poor roam the streets, rummaging through garbage bins for scraps to eat. "It's not that Argentina has run out of food," says Mr. Cevallos. "The problem is that many people have no access to it. They simply cannot afford to buy enough to keep their families alive and healthy."

Charity workers say they cannot hope to protect all of the country's poorest. "We can find food sufficient for 100 soup kitchens," says Carr. "But if we think of the whole country, how are we ever going to cope with 10,000 such eating places?"

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