Wilbert bursts out on a dusty street from his tin roof shack that in the midday heat feels like a burning oven. The boy, clutching a spoon in his hand, knows that in a few minutes he will dig it into a rice, beans, and meatloaf meal. “Lunch is coming! Lunch is coming!” he is hollering cheerfully.
This is Carucieña, an impoverished neighborhood in the city of Barquisimeto, the capital of the Venezuelan state of Lara. Vivacious Wilbert somehow doesn’t fit into the gloomy atmosphere of Carucieña, a parched piece of land filled with countless ramshackle dwellings.
More than 200 miles away in Caracas there is a young man who is indirectly responsible for Wilbert’s display of enthusiasm: Roberto Patiño, a Harvard-educated Venezuelan. Mr. Patiño has set up more than 100 free dining halls around the country in the past three years to feed children who might otherwise starve. One of those eateries is just around the corner from Wilbert’s shack, where up to 50 children receive lunch every Monday through Friday.
“Nothing is more unjust than a child that can’t eat,” Mr. Patiño says.
Mr. Patiño has worked in impoverished Venezuelan communities for more than 10 years, looking at violence reduction and the youth vote, among other things. The more he saw, especially when he played a big role in a political opposition campaign in 2012, the more he wanted to help. That’s what led him to pursue related studies at Harvard.
‘Do you have anything to eat?’
He first had the idea of providing sustenance to poor people early in 2016, when he and his colleagues were in the crime-ridden neighborhood of El Polvorín in Caracas. As part of activities to pull the community together, they showed a movie to the children.
At one point, a young girl named Fabiola approached Mr. Patiño. She grabbed his pants and asked a simple question: “Do you have anything to eat? I am starving.”
Soon Mr. Patiño learned that most children in the poor parts of town didn’t go to school because their parents let them sleep until noon so they wouldn’t have to feed them. Those who did go to class often fainted from hunger.
In a state of alarm, Mr. Patiño launched a small humanitarian project in the Caracas slum called La Vega. This was the plan: He would supply the food while residents would provide the space for the project, gas for cooking, and volunteers to do the work.
Three years later, Mr. Patiño is feeding almost 9,000 children across Venezuela during a time of deep crisis for the country politically and economically.
One of the dining halls is in Carapita, a Caracas slum that has seen much violence. The eatery, which is perched on a hill, is run by Yusbel Castro, who has opened up her own house for the venture.
Ms. Castro, with a small team of other women, cooks for 110 children. The youths take turns, using two wobbly tables, devouring five meals a week. One day recently the children were munching on carne molida (ground beef), rice, sweet potatoes, plantains, carrots, and beet salad.
“Leadership is about building the capacity of people to work out their problems in their own midst. It is not just about the leader gaining the authority and power in the capital,” says Ronald Heifetz, founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Mr. Patiño took Dr. Heifetz’s course on leadership at Harvard, where he earned his master’s in public policy with a focus on violence reduction.
“Roberto has a courage to go to often dangerous places that are far from his elite background. He is devoted to serving his people,” Dr. Heifetz says.
Mr. Patiño’s drive to help others makes him an effective fundraiser. He generates the revenue to finance his project from three sources: donations from charitable organizations, contributions from the Venezuelan diaspora, and money flowing in from a social business – his volunteers sell lunches to companies and individual clients.
“We used to spend monthly $4 on a kid. Unfortunately, due to the hyperinflation, it is now $12,” he says. Despite that, he predicts the program will soon feed 10,000 children.
It’s a drop in the ocean, he acknowledges. His volunteers share many heart-wrenching stories about tough decisions they make. All the children they meet are in precarious conditions, but only a few are deemed “eligible” because of the limited budget.
“Roberto is no magician,” Dr. Heifetz says. “This crisis is simply overwhelming.”
The government’s social programs
President Nicolás Maduro still sends to families in the shantytowns boxes that contain up to 27 products, including cooking oil, sugar, rice, and beans. The boxes are delivered to 5.6 million Venezuelans, according to government figures.
This raises a question about Mr. Patiño’s project. Isn’t he just copying the government system of social dependency? “Unlike [the Chavismo model] that is blackmailing the population for political reasons, we don’t discriminate. Our only criterion is a child in need,” says Mr. Patiño, alluding to the state distribution of food based on favoring those who affiliate with Mr. Maduro’s party.
Sometimes Mr. Patiño collides with the governmental social programs. Ms. Castro claims that government supporters told her to shut down the eatery in her house. She refused and together with her neighbors successfully defended the kitchen.
The political opposition has been gaining ground in places like Barquisimeto’s slums.
“Patiño’s eateries have opened the doors for us. We don’t come in just with words but with actual help,” says Daniel Antequera, an opposition lawmaker representing the state of Lara who also oversees the eateries there.
Mr. Patiño and Mr. Antequera are longtime friends, having known each other since their student years. Both were involved in campaigns like the one against the constitutional amendments proposed by then-President Hugo Chávez in 2007.
Mr. Patiño’s long history of political activism is the reason some perceive his humanitarian work as part of an effort to raise his public profile for future political gains.
“To people who are saying that Roberto is doing it for his own political agenda I say, What’s your point? Don’t you think it is worthy to save a child’s life?” says Roberto Briceño-León, an influential crime expert who came to know Mr. Patiño through shared professional interests.
Mr. Patiño doesn’t hide his desire to run for office at some point. Perhaps Wilbert from the Carucieña slum might vote for him one day. But right now, for Mr. Patiño, the priority is to keep the boy alive and well so he can pursue life’s opportunities.