Though his days are filled with the challenges of feeding, housing, and educating nearly 1,000 children, Miguel Rodriguez says he “doesn’t work.” Instead, he practices what he calls “committed love.” As the founder of Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family), a home and school for street children in Ventanilla, Peru, Miguel says “my hardest task as head of this family is telling a small child who has lived on the streets that life is beautiful and that we adults are not all bad and that there is justice.”
Miguel did not always dedicate his life to children living in the streets. But 24 years ago, his third child died only six months after being born. Miguel recalls, “I was leaving the children’s hospital when I came upon two children with lost stares who had been left at the door. They asked for medical help, but no one was attending to them.” Miguel asked hospital staff for an explanation and was told that the children were unable to pay for care. Though he was too absorbed in his own grief in that moment to act on their behalf, Miguel returned the next day to inquire about the children. Neither had survived.
As Miguel and his family buried their beloved son, they promised to never again fail to recognize another person’s pain as their own and to do everything they could to end homelessness for children. Within two weeks, Miguel brought four children into his home. They came back the day after with eight more, and his family began multiplying. “A neighbor reported that I was kidnapping children and I spent three months in jail before the misunderstanding was cleared up,” Miguel explains. “This made me realize I needed to buy land and establish a real community for the children.”
Since then, more than 2,100 children have been part of the Sagrada Familia, which is currently home to 830 children, ranging from one month to 19 years old. Sagrada Familia has its own school, which opens its doors to children in the community as well as those in Miguel’s care. Miguel says, “We believe the best way to help the children is to educate them, not only about books, but about values. They should all be good students, but mostly, they should be good people who are going to work hard.” In order to instill these values in the children, the Sagrada Familia day begins at 5:30 a.m. with chores for everyone before breakfast. In the af- ternoon, the young children play while the older ones learn skills such as sewing, mechanics, and baking; all the children learn English.
Miguel says that “the daily structure at Sagrada Familia is heavily infused with ‘te quiero’ (I love you) and hugs,” and that this has been successful—more than 140 Sagrada children have gone on to universities throughout Peru. Of one girl, Miguel recounts, “I saw her the other day and I gave her a hug filled with love. Today she is a professional. I still remember seeing her in the streets selling cook- ies with a dirty face; when I invited her to live in my community, the first thing she asked was if I had food. That was 15 years ago and now I see that she did it, and that she could do it, and that she did it so well!”
Miguel emphasizes that “we talk a lot with the children…24 hours a day we always have time to talk and to laugh.” He says that this is how, eventually, the children come to trust him and the other people who work at Sagrada Familia.
The biggest challenge Miguel faces today, he says, is that “we have no more space for children. We can’t accommodate children with physical and mental disabilities. But we will never turn children away. So, we just do what we can, every day.” Miguel hopes to teach the children of Sagrada Familia the lesson that he learned only in tragedy: “Happiness, above all, happiness.”